Answering US complaints, the European Parliament Wednesday moved to end a five-year moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms in food, but imposed strict labeling rules that are sure to anger American farmers.
Under the new law, all food products sold in the European Union made from GMOs must be clearly marked as such. That will demand "farm to fork" traceability that US officials say will cost exporters too much to implement.
EU leaders who had drawn up the new rules welcomed their adoption. "This is a huge step forward in giving choice to citizens," EU Health Commissioner David Byrne said after the vote. "We will now have the most rigorous premarketing assessment of GM food ... in the world."
The EU has maintained an unofficial ban on the farming and import of new GM strains since 1998, when a public outcry in the wake of 'mad cow disease' reflected widespread European fears about food safety.
Wednesday's vote, which must now be ratified by the EU's 15 member governments, clears the way for an end to that ban, setting wide-ranging rules governing the cultivation and use of GMOs.
Under the new law, all biotech food items - including such items as cookies or pizzas containing oil refined from GM corn - will have to be clearly labeled "This product is produced from GMOs."
Conventional food containing up to 0.9 percent of authorized GM material will be exempt, since it is sometimes technically unavoidable to stop small amounts of GM crops from getting mixed up with ordinary produce during harvest, storage, and transportation.
That means that farmers and wholesalers planning to sell their crops on European markets will have to separate GM from ordinary seed - an expensive and complicated process that US officials have argued constitutes a barrier to free trade.
Last May, the US - backed by other big grain producers such as Canada and Argentina - lodged a complaint against the EU with the World Trade Organization, saying that the European de facto ban was based on scientifically unfounded fears. US farmers say the EU restrictions have cost them $300 million a year in lost corn sales alone.
The new labeling requirements may prompt Washington to press its complaint, some observers suggest. But EU officials are unrepentant. "We are here to look after European consumers, not American farmers," said EU spokeswoman Beate Gminder. "This is the way Europe wants to deal with this issue."
Environmental campaigners were delighted with the new law, and praised the EU Parliament for imposing such strict regulations. "This vote is a slap in the face of the US administration, which thought that by bullying ... Europe, and eventually others, would swallow its GMO policy," said Eric Gall, a Greenpeace activist.
The GMO issue has long been a major irritant in transatlantic trade relations. President Bush last week accused the EU of worsening famine in Africa by its policy.
But Europe's cautious attitude received a boost Tuesday, when the United Nations' food-standards body approved product tracing as a tool to reduce the possible risks of GM food.
A joint commission of the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, meeting in Rome, laid down guidelines for assessing the safety of GM products before they go to market. The US administration prefers to make biotech companies responsible for the safety of their products, and does not require the firms to notify the Food and Drug Administration, or to provide a safety evaluation, when they introduce a new strain.
Before the EU moratorium, 18 GM plant varieties, including corn, rapeseed, chicory, and soybeans, had been approved for cultivation by the European authorities, but they are not widely grown. EU governments also restricted GM field trials, and the number of GM experimental plantings has dropped by 90 percent since 1998.
The new law lays down simplified rules for the authorization of new GM strains. Nineteen applications to grow GM crops experimentally or commercially in Europe are currently pending.