The new laws require that producers are able to trace the GM content of all products and that all food with more than 0.9 per cent genetically modified content is labelled. In separate measures, new directives enable individual EU countries to impose restrictions on how GM crops are grown to prevent contamination of organic crops by GM varieties.
Campaigners were dismayed in the days before the vote when the UK government lobbied MEPs to vote against regulation that would tighten the rules on GM labelling.
A briefing document for UK MEPs, produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency, described measures to deal with contamination as "unhelpful" and criticised the 0.9 per cent limit as "unwelcome." The document argued: 'the lower the threshold, the more difficult it would become to make the regulation practically effective to the benefit of genuine consumer choice."
But Friends of the Earth, who obtained the document, rubbished the government's claims. They said: "Most supermarkets and food manufacturers already have systems in place that can detect GM material at much lower levels to a 0.1 per cent limit of detection. The government's own Central Science Laboratory has confirmed that this level of detection is accurate."
Despite government worries about the stringency of the new EU laws, some critics believe they are not strong enough. In a report, 'Towards a GM free Europe - Halting the spread of GMOs', Green MEP Caroline Lucas argues that the new rules do not properly address the risk of contamination and will not protect the consumer. She said: "Research conducted by the European Commission, Defra and the European Environment Agency all conclude that licensing GM crops will almost inevitably lead to widespread contamination of non-GM crops.
"If we are to ensure the public has the right to choose whether to reject GM, we must ensure not only that GM is labelled, but that non-GM continues to exist. Unless we can address the problems of contamination, that cannot be guaranteed."
Lucas argues the EU's five-year-ban on new GM products should therefore remain. She said: "It is essential the moratorium stays in place at least until liability rules are agreed and, crucially, until someone works out if there is a way of maintaining the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops."
The UK government launched a debate on GM products in early June called the GM Nation debate. It was scheduled to end on 18 July although a group of MPs, led by former environment minister Michael Meacher, have tabled an early day motion calling on the government to extend the debate until more research evidence is available.
The government must decide how wide buffer zones between organic and GM crops must be, and whether or not the GM-food industry will be liable for any genetic pollution or possible health and environmental impacts of GM crops.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Pete Riley said: "the government is clearly trying to rush through this debate as quickly as possible, with as little input from the public as possible. European politicians must take action to enable consumers to say no to GM."