Seven European Countries in Court Over Transgenic Micro-organisms

BRUSSELS, Belgium, August 10, 2001 (ENS) - Keeping transgenic micro-organisms from escaping into the environment is critical for the health and safety of the European population and environment, but seven countries have failed to pass laws requiring their containment that incorporate modern standards.

The European Commission has decided to take Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain and Austria to the European Court of Justice for failure to pass national legislation that would implement an amendment to the law on the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms (GMMs). The micro-organisms include viruses and bacteria that could contaminate the environment and affect human health if they escape.

This amendment was adopted in October 1998. A decision to take France to the European Court of Justice concerns its failure to fully transpose the original European Union law on GMMs into French national law.

Commenting on the decisions, the Commissioner for Environment Margot Wallstrom, said, "Advances made in GMM risk assessment methods, which are incorporated in EU legislation, must be taken into account in the national laws of all Member States. This is essential to maintain a high level of protection for human health and the environment."


European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom (Photo courtesy IISD)
The original GMM law requires that contained use work - laboratory work - with GMMs including virus and bacteria should be carried out in such a way as to limit possible harmful effects on human health and the environment.

This involves classification of GMMs in relation to the risks that they present and applying appropriate physical, biological and chemical containment measures. Such measures may include use of sealed laboratories or containers, GMMs that cannot reproduce as well as inactivation through use of chemicals.

The amendment which the six countries failed to implement aims to bring the legislation into line with current international practice. It includes provisions based on risk arising from work activities, with a corresponding risk classification scheme, such that notification requirements address the real risk of the activities concerned.

It expands the guidelines on the containment and control measures that need to be applied to protect human health and the environment.

It also introduces more flexibility to allow for easier adaptation in response to future technical progress.

National transposing legislation should have been adopted and communicated to the Commission by the June 5, 2000 at the latest.

As no implementing legislation had been received from Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain or Austria by the deadline, the Commission sent each country a second written warning, known as a Reasoned Opinion, which gave them two months to submit their observations.

For Belgium, a response was received indicating that implementing legislation was being prepared for all three Belgian regions. But no region appears to have finally adopted such a text, and no such adopted legislation has been communicated to the Commission.

Germany responded stating that a law implementing the amendment was being worked on, but to date, no adopted implementing legislation has been communicated to the Commission.

The United Kingdom had already communicated implementing legislation for Great Britain before the warning was sent. Implementing legislation was then communicated for Gibraltar in response to the warning. With regard to Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom authorities indicated that legislation was under preparation, but no adopted text was communicated.

Spain responded that an implementing text was being prepared, but again no final adopted text was communicated to the Commission.

Austria replied to the Reasoned Opinion indicating that existing legislation already notified to the Commission in 1995 covered part of the Directive's requirements. But additional legislative instruments to fill in the remaining gaps are still under preparation.

Greece failed to reply to the Reasoned Opinion.