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Wednesday, 8 February 2023, Ciaran Donaghy, CIEH Senior Policy and Public Affairs Executive
We feel it is essential that such activity be an accurate reflection of member views, and what better way to ensure that our policy direction is shaped by our members than by asking them directly. That's why CIEH has recently begun trialling member policy surveys, so we can hear directly from our members when developing our policies and campaigning priorities.
Just before Christmas, we launched our first member policy survey on the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill which aims to create a new regulatory framework in the United Kingdom allowing for the sale and consumption of precision-bred food products. As a potentially contentious area of government policy, we felt this was an ideal topic with which to engage our members for their expert views on the matter. This Bill is relevant to Environmental Health in that the legislation, as it is currently being presented, does not require precision-bred food products to be appropriately labelled. Furthermore, there is debate within the scientific discourse as to the potential public health effects of precision-bred food products, meaning that such food products are likely to require monitoring and evaluation by food safety experts. The survey was open for six weeks and I would like to go on record to place my personal thanks to each and every member who took the time to share their views with us. You have provided us with invaluable data and insight into this issue, and for that I am very thankful.
After carefully considering the answers provided, some very interesting trends have emerged. Members remain cautious about whether precision-bred food products should be available for sale in the UK, with 34% neither agreeing nor disagreeing, compared to 39% who disagreed that precision-bred food products should be available for sale in the UK. With 27% agreeing that precision-bred food products should be available for sale in the UK, it is clear that there is a plurality of views, and great uncertainty.
This uncertainty is once again reflected further in the survey. For example, when asked whether they felt precision-bred food products were safe for consumption, 53% of respondents said they did not know. This is compared to 32% who think they are safe for consumption and 15% who think they are not safe for consumption. Respondents were given the opportunity to further clarify their comments, and while anonymous, some select comments highlighting the plurality of views make for interesting reading:
“Though [it] is a new innovation, it will bring more assurance to customers due to being conventional / as conventional genetic changes of crop, food safety, minimise pesticide use, and improved food quality and taste. Biomarkers can be replicated and stored in the laboratory for future use and when needed.”
“I am sceptical of the definition of safe. Applying the risk averse precautionary principle, we should be certain of the long-term effects of consuming foods with certain enhanced characteristics. Consumers should not be induced into inferring precision foods are a substitute for a nutritious and varied diet from all sources. The acceptance of PBFPs must not result in a government policy to direct consumers to eating them.”
No such uncertainty was to be found, however, when members were asked about whether precision-bred food products should be accurately labelled as such, with 96% of respondents categorically stating that they should be. While labelling is a trading standards issue, it highlights how important this issue remains to our members. As it stands, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill does not mandate that precision-bred products be labelled as such. Therefore, it is imperative that CIEH collaborate with The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) to direct policymakers to these findings to ensure that this Bill is amended to reflect this important issue.
When asked what position members felt CIEH should take with respect to the Bill, there was further uncertainty with 37% of the view that CIEH should oppose the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, 36% thought that we should support while 27% did not know. A variety of select comments have urged CIEH to follow the evidence with respect to precision-bred food products, and while current evidence is inconclusive, CIEH is committed to keeping up to date with developments in this space, particularly with regards to any threat precision-bred food products may pose to public health.
Overall, we have found this to be a most useful exercise. So much so, that we have launched our second CIEH member policy survey in environmental protection. This will no doubt be good news to 95% of respondents who felt that CIEH should continue to use member surveys to support policy development. If you are a CIEH member with expertise in the field of environmental protection, then please visit MyCIEH and navigate to the ‘Surveys’ section to complete our CIEH member policy survey: environmental protection.