OXFORD - Britain's sudden emergence as a biotech-free food zone is likely to have repercussions up and down the food chain, from farmers to agbio companies to investors to processors, shippers and the giant food companies themselves.

Last week, U.K.-based food producers belonging to the Unilever NV, Nestle SA and Cadbury Schweppes plc groups declared their plans to end the use of genetically modified ingredients in their products. At the same time, Tesco plc, Britain's largest supermarket chain, joined the long list of British retailers to ban, where possible, the use of biotech ingredients in its own label products.

While the moves by the food producers only affect their British operations, their continental businesses are likely to be under pressure to follow suit. Nevertheless, agbio companies, investors and even the food companies appear to be treating the specter of Europe closing its doors on biotech as a temporary phenomenon that will have no long-term repercussions for the technology.

In their discussions with BioCentury, the views of the participants in the food chain are mostly colored by their proximity to the market.

Grocers' credo: The consumer rules

Having stood up for biotechnology as recently as last month (see BioCentury, April 19), Tesco's board announced that it would remove all genetically modified ingredients, wherever it is practical to do so, in response to customer views. "The most recent survey of Tesco customers has confirmed that many are concerned about GM food products and one in four want them removed from the shelves. But overwhelmingly they want to be able to make a straightforward choice, based upon proper information and clear labeling," said John Longworth, trading law and technical director.

Tesco's move means that Britain's 10 largest supermarket chains have now taken against the use of biotech in food products. But the £24 billion ($39 billion) a year company is taking the "never say never" line. "Our customers say that current GM products offer no new benefits, so it is not surprising that some want them removed and the great majority want a proper choice," said Longworth.

Tesco said that it was working with the environmental pressure group Greenpeace to identify sources of genuine GM-free soya and other ingredients used in a range of foods.