Wants consumer choice on genetically altered U.S. beans

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LONDON -- Greenpeace International activists on October 16 mounted a Europe-wide protest outside and on Unilever buildings over the multinational marketer's intent to use genetically altered soya beans in its products.

The day of protest - chosen as it is the United Nations' World Food Day - is part of an ongoing campaign which will target big food manufacturers ahead of the widespread use of such soya bean products. The first products containing the ingredient could be on Europe's supermarket shelves before the end of the year.

The "Roundup Ready" beans, developed by the U.S. Monsanto to be resistant to a weed-killer, will be mixed with other beans imported from the U.S. next month. As 60% of food products sold in supermarkets contain soya, consumers will not be able to avoid buying the genetically manipulated (GM) beans.

Unilever is first on Greenpeace's list of targets as one of the biggest users of soya in products such as Wall's sausages, Magnum ice creams and Birds Eye Healthy Options. However, the environmental campaigners met in June with Unilever, Nestle and Danone "to try to influence major players in the food market," says campaigner Dr Douglas Parr. Greenpeace wants products containing GM beans labelled as such and some products kept free of the GM beans.

The beans have been passed as safe by the European Commission, but Greenpeace claims there are risks involved to the environment and human health. They may lead to heightened resistance among humans to anti-biotics, for example.

Unilever contests that the beans are no different from others and that they allow farmers to use less herbicide - an environmental benefit. Segregation would be impractical because of the colossal volumes involved, it claims. And labelling, which could only say a product "may" contain GM beans would be useless, says spokesman Mike Haines.

However, Unilever is setting up carelines for all food products within each of its relevant operating companies for consumers concerned about GM ingredients.

This is the first mass release of GM products onto the consumer market. Greenpeace is keen to force the issue now ahead of the arrival of other expected GM products such as maize, wheat, sugar beet and potatoes.

Copyright October 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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