After a period of initial liberalization, the European regulatory handling of agricultural biotechnology became more restrictive during the second half of the 1990s, culminating in 1999 in a de facto moratorium on new GM crops in Europe. A widely cited explanation for this policy shift was ‘public outrage’ resulting from risk perception, lack of trust in government, media reporting and non-governmental organization (NGO) campaigns. Empirically, it remains unclear whether public outrage existed or was significant for policy. Surveys showed considerable variation in risk perception across Europe, but this was not the most important variable determining support for biotechnology. Overall trust in relevant institutions did not differ between the US and the European Union (EU). Triggers for public debate differed across countries and time, and issues varied widely. In some European countries, public debate started before or long after the onset of NGO activities; in other countries, political actors themselves started a debate on biotechnology. A policy shift can be observed in some countries but not in others. In addition, the major addressees of demands have not been political institutions but retailers. Due to these inconsistencies, the proposed linkage between public perception, NGO activity and policy shift remains questionable.