Italy gene corn ban may be legal-EU court adviser
Thursday March 13, 8:18 am ET

LUXEMBOURG, March 14 (Reuters) - A top EU court official said on Thursday states were entitled to ban gene-modified (GM) foods if they had reason to fear possible health or environmental risks.

Many European Union governments are resisting the introduction of GM products, dubbed Frankenstein foods by some critics.

A European Court of Justice adviser said Italy did have the right to ban GM maize, which had been approved before an EU-wide moratorium, if the government had evidence of risks.

"The Italian Government was entitled to adopt provisional measures...provided that it had detailed grounds for considering, as a result of new information or a reassessment of existing information, that the use of the food in question endangers human health or the environment," the court said in a statement, giving Advocate General Siegbert Alber's opinion.

The case was brought by three biotechnology firms, Monsanto (NYSE:MON - News), Syngenta (SYNZn.VX) and Pioneer Hi-Bred (NYSE:PHB - News), to contest a ban on GM maize imposed by Italy in 2000.

The maize varieties, genetically altered to be more resistant to pests and chemical sprays, were accepted for use in the EU before the bloc imposed an unofficial moratorium on new authorisations in 1998.

The United States has threatened to take the EU to the World Trade Organisation over the lack of access to EU markets.

Italy, one of the GM-sceptic countries that vowed to block any new GM products from the EU pending tougher testing and monitoring rules, said the simplified procedure used to assess the maize was not rigorous enough.

The firms say the maize products once processed into food are no different from traditional strains. But Italy argued that traces of genetically modified DNA remained in corn meal even after processing and could in theory pose a health risk.

A court spokesman said the EU court may leave the final decision on whether Italy presented sufficient evidence to justify its ban to the Italian courts, which will have to reconsider the case after the Luxembourg court has ruled.

The court will not deliver its final ruling for several months. Judges tend to follow the non-binding opinion of the advocate general in about 80 percent of cases.

The European Commission wants eventually to open the way to GM products in the EU market and a law on tracing and labelling of goods has been passed by the European Parliament.

Washington has applied intense pressure to get the ban removed as it is costing its farmers millions of dollars in lost sales. But it has held back from launching a WTO dispute case, saying it wants to build a coalition against the EU's GM ban.