BRUSSELS, April 15 -- European Union nations voted Friday to ban U.S. shipments of suspect corn gluten animal feed unless they are assured that the imports are free of unauthorized genetically modified corn.
The vote could affect millions of dollars' worth of corn gluten exports. The dispute centers on a batch of Bt10 genetically modified corn that Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta AG inadvertently sold in the United States and exported to Europe without approval.
"This is a targeted measure which is necessary to uphold E.U. law, maintain consumer confidence and ensure that the unauthorized GMO Bt10 cannot enter the E.U. Imports of maize products which are certified as free of Bt10 will be able to continue," said E.U. Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.
The ban will effectively shut out all imports of U.S. corn gluten, since there is currently no effective way of testing for Bt10, which has not been approved by U.S. or European regulators. E.U. spokesman Philip Tod said Syngenta was working to develop and validate such a test, but they could not say when it would be ready for use.
Michael Mack, chief operating officer of Syngenta Seeds, said it would quickly have a workable test for the E.U.
"We will make operational within a matter of days a valid test method to detect for Bt10," Mack said. Such a test would still need further approval from E.U. authorities. It was not immediately clear how long such approval would take.
U.S. shipments of corn gluten feed to the E.U. totaled 347 million euros ($450 million) last year.
The United States said the ban was exaggerated.
"We view the E.U.'s decision to impose a certification requirement on U.S. corn gluten due to the possible, low-level presence of Bt10 corn to be an overreaction," said Edward Kemp, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the E.U.
"U.S. regulatory authorities have determined there are no hazards to health, safety or the environment related to Bt10," Kemp said. "There is no reason to expect any negative impact from the small amounts of Bt10 corn that may have entered the E.U."
The ban is to come into force early next week, pending approval by the E.U.'s head office.
Environmental campaigners welcomed the move. "Europe now has a de facto ban on the import of many U.S. animal feeds," said Friends of the Earth spokesman Adrian Bebb.
However, Greenpeace said stricter controls are needed to prevent more cases of unauthorized biotech imports.
"Europe is currently helpless to defend itself from contamination by GMOs that are suspected to harm human health and the environment," said Christoph Then, genetic engineering expert for the group.
"As long as E.U. authorities have no means to test imports for all the GMOs being released in the U.S. and elsewhere, it must say 'no entry' to the E.U. for any food, feed or seeds that are at risk of contamination," he said.
The E.U. said it is in continuous contact with U.S. authorities on the issue, but its decision to ban suspect corn gluten imports further strains trans-Atlantic trade relations.
Syngenta said last week it has reached a settlement with the U.S. government over the inadvertent sale to farmers of Bt10.
The company said in a written statement that under the settlement reached with U.S. authorities, it would pay a fine of $375,000 and teach its employees the importance of complying with all rules.
However, the E.U. has been annoyed that U.S. authorities allowed the export of Bt10 to Europe after it was mixed up with an authorized biotech Syngenta maize labeled Bt11.
About 1,000 tons of animal feed containing the corn are thought to have entered the E.U. since 2001. The E.U.'s head office earlier had said some food products, including flour and oil may also have been imported, but its statement Friday said that, "according to current information from the U.S. authorities and the European food industry, food products in the E.U. are not affected."
Nevertheless, the case has underscored European concerns about biotech foods, coming shortly after the E.U. relaxed restrictions on genetically modified organisms.