25 June 2018 | Online since 2003

1 July 2013

Pressure group accuses Tesco of breaking promise on GM Feed

A pressure group has accused supermarket giant Tesco of breaking a promise to customers by abandoning its requirement that egg producers use only non-GM feed.

GM Freeze, a group campaigning against the use of genetic modification in agriculture, says Tesco had promised to phase out GM animal feed. It says the supermarket's decision on egg production had let down both consumers and shareholders.

Tesco's decision to abandon the non-GM requirement came after egg industry representatives, including the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association (BFREPA), warned about problems in sourcing non-GM soya. With growers increasingly planting GM varieties, they said that the price of non-GM soya had soared and supplies of non-GM were becoming more difficult to obtain.

Asda and Morrisons were the first major supermarkets to abandon the non-GM requirement. Tesco followed when it issued a statement saying it could no longer guarantee that the feed used by egg producers would be GM-free. In the statement, which was issued by the company's group technical director, Tim J. Smith, Tesco said that both poultry and egg suppliers had told the company that it had become increasingly difficult to guarantee GM-free feed. This was because of the increased production of GM soya and also the possibility of cross-contamination from GM soya when non-GM was available. "Because so much soya is modified and because of the way crops are planted, processed and transported, it is possible that non-GM soya crops contain low levels of GM soya. The new DNA testing regime we have put in place has identified that the risk of finding GM material in non-GM feed is increasing," said the Tesco director in the statement. "We could not continue with a promise we cannot be sure it is possible to keep and we want to be up front about the changes we are making."

He pointed out in his statement that Asda and Morrisons had already abandoned the non-GM guarantee.

But GM Freeze says that in 1999 Tesco wrote to its suppliers stating that the company was aiming for the "complete elimination of GM ingredients from animal feed". It said that the company re-stated this aim in 2001 when it announced it would "phase out" GM-fed eggs, poultry, pork and fish. However, in April 2013 the supermarket group had announced that it would in future permit suppliers “to use GM feed in producing our non-organic meat, eggs and milk”.

GM Freeze said in a statement that Tesco customers now knew less about the products they bought than they did in March this year because the company refused to label meat, milk and eggs to help shoppers see where GM feed was, and was not, used. It said that this directly contradicted the assurance of chief executive Philip Clarke in the company’s corporate social responsibility report 'Tesco and Society', which, it said, was published after the GM feed announcement. The assurance read, “Our promise is simple: if it isn’t on the label, it won’t be in the product,” said GM Freeze.

The report also made the claim that the company used its considerable market power “for good”, with Chairman Richard Broadbent saying, “So when we talk about our value of using our scale for good in society, we think in terms of creating opportunities, having respect for both people and products and supporting choice for everyone…[These ambitions] are a direction of travel for an organisation which attaches great importance to understanding and discharging its full accountability to all whose lives it touches.”

Philip Clarke said, “Our strong belief is that we cannot build a sustainable business on an unsustainable supply chain.”

GM Freeze said that Tesco had gone back on its aims and assurances by abandoning its requirement for poultry farmers to use non-GM feed. Jane O’Meara of GM Free Dorset said, “Tesco’s customers quite rightly expect the company to honour the pledges it makes, but in the case of GM animal feed customers have been badly let down, if not misled.

"If Tesco is serious about ‘using its scale for good’ it should use long-term contracts to secure its share of Brazil’s non-GM soya, build confidence in this market and foster expanded production, which would, in turn, bring prices down under the normal operation of market forces. Despite having had over a decade to do this, Tesco has failed to secure long-term supply contracts for the non-GM soya available on the market, but nevertheless tries to assure customers and shareholders the company is acting sustainably. It just doesn’t add up.”

GM Freeze said that Tesco’s decision to allow the use of GM feed meant it now relied on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (RR) GM soya, a crop which it said had been condemned by hundreds of organisations around the world as unsustainable. It said that in South America the crops were regularly sprayed with Roundup, which comprised the active ingredient glyphosate, to control weeds. It said this caused severe health and reproductive problems for the communities under the spray drift.
It said that overreliance on Roundup had triggered the development of resistant weeds able to survive sprays, which now spread across millions of acres of farmland. Farmers now had to use hand weeding or an armory of herbicides alongside glyphosate to control them, contradicting the promise that GM would mean cheap, easy weed control. It said that Roundup Ready soya was likely to increase glyphosate residues in animal feed because the weed killer was applied directly on growing crops prior to harvest.

GM Freeze said that a 2010 poll showed 89 per cent of Tesco customers wanted GM-fed meat, milk and eggs to be labeled, and 72 per cent said they would be willing to pay more for foods produced without GM feed. It said the move towards GM feed contradicted the promises the company made to its customers to get rid of GM feed and to ensure its supply chain was sustainable, and Tesco continued to ignore the desire of the vast majority of its customers for labels.

GM Freeze spokesman Pete Riley of GM Freeze said, “Tesco is now backing GM soya production in South America, where it is grown in huge monocultures sprayed frequently with Roundup to the detriment of people and ecosystems there. Things are likely to get worse, as weeds resistant to Roundup continue to spread.

“The decision to move away from non-GM feed was not the action of a responsible company, and shareholders need to look carefully at the impact this decision will have on the quality of what Tesco sells and its reputation with its customers.”

Tesco and the other UK supermarkets that have abandoned the non-GM feed requirement have already come under fire from Europe, where a group of major retailers from other European countries, including Germany, France, Austria and Luxembourg, have re-stated their commitment to non-GM soya in what is known as the Brussels Soy Declaration. In the declaration the retailers say they see animal feed as the main route by which genetically modified soya gets into the food chain.
Augusto Freire, president of the ProTerra Foundation, which administers a certification program scheme for non-GM, said that UK retailers were in danger of being viewed as "backward-thinking" on the issue.


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