The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the production of drinks has so far been a less controversial subject than their use in food products. But, as Mark Rowe found out, with recent changes in EU labelling legislation, consumers may well be seeing the GM tag appearing more often on drinks which is likely to heighten the debate.

Given the level of public concern over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in what we drink and eat, most drinks companies have chosen to tread warily around the issue and sought not to draw attention to it. In the Swedish town of Ystad, however, a small family brewery has adopted the opposite approach.

Earlier this year the brewery, Österlenbryggarna Tomelilla, launched a GM beer made from corn supplied by Monsanto, the biotech company, with support from Syngenta, the Swiss GM company. Kenth Persson, who manages the company, says the beer, which he describes as "rounded" in flavour, has sold up to 5,000 litres. "It's too early to say if it will be a success in the long term but it is proving a plus for us. It's not dangerous to drink and it has not affected sales of our other beers. The maize is better than the traditional maize because it is cleaner."

The beer has been exported to Germany, and there is interest from the UK but, for now, Tomelilla's approach is the exception. The issue of GM drinks appears to have remained in the shadows: the United States Economic Research Service, part of the US Department of Agriculture, has yet to commission a single study on the subject.

So why is GM an issue? For soft drinks, sugar is the key. Sugar is used to provide the sweetness of soft drinks and the energy of sports drinks; but it is also used for a range of colouring additives, including E150d, which is part of the most widely used group of colourings. The most common source of sugar is sugar beet or sugar cane, but sugar can also be derived from maize starch, and this is where the issue of GM comes in. Grain from the GM maize line Bt11 has been authorised for import into Europe since 1998 and is widely used in the EU in derived food products including soft drinks. The EU Scientific Committee on Food says the maize, which has been altered to protect itself against the corn-borer larva, which destroys up to 7% of the world's annual maize harvest, is as safe as conventional sweet maize. The maize makes up 10% of the Tomelilla GM beer.

Earlier this summer, the European Commission authorised a second BT11 product, genetically modified sweetcorn. This decision, valid for 10 years, applied only to the Swiss GM company Syngenta.

The EU is confident that the latest product is safe. "GM sweetcorn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world," said David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice."

Labelling is the key issue for the industry. The major piece of legislation is the EU regulation on traceability and labelling of GM food and drink products, which came into force in April this year.

Previously, a product only had to be labelled if a GM component was present, containing DNA or protein, of more than 1%. Now, the labelling requirements have been strengthened to cover any ingredient produced from a GMO, including highly refined derivatives, such as glucose syrup. The labelling threshold has been reduced slightly to 0.9%. If an ingredient produced from a GM crop is present in the final product, the goods must be labelled as such, even if there is no GM DNA or protein detected in the final product. This means that any producers of soft drinks are now required to label the products as containing GM if they use any GM ingredient, such as GM maize, no matter how refined. There are, however, loopholes: milk made using GM maize does not need to be labelled because products from animals fed with GM feed do not have to be labelled as such.

The industry has expressed its concern about the requirements. "The trouble with the new legislation is that it doesn't necessarily give the consumer more information," said Thierry Dieu, spokesman for the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the European Union (CIAA)."They can have two identical products, one with no GM at all, and the other which used GM at some stage in its production but which is not detectable at all. Yet one is labelled as GM."

Yet despite the green light from the EU, Syngenta has decided not to market its genetically modified (GM) sweetcorn, BT11. The company cited consumer opposition and the reluctance of the European food industry to add GM corn to its product range.

Dieu understands the public concern but believes GM is the way forward for the drinks industry. "We support consumers' concerns," he said. "We respect their choice because we produce food and drink for them. But the industry is convinced that a responsible use of biotechnological developments would benefit all actors of the food chain."