GLG Sample Issue: Organic vs. Genetically Modified Foods: Labelling in Canada

By Emily Major — July 22, 2012

Studies claim that genetically modified organisms are completely safe for human consumption; though allergies to soy sky-rocketed in the UK by 50% with the introduction of genetically manipulated soy.

Genetically modified (GM) and genetically engineered (GE) foods have exploded onto North American markets, providing larger, cheaper and seemingly innocuous products to Canadian society. Unless a product has been labeled “Organic,” current laws in Canada do not require mandatory labeling for GM or GE foods. There has been much debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether laws should instate mandatory labeling. Full transparency should be a vital pillar in consumer interests, as the long-term effects of genetically engineered foods are not yet known.

Labeling is arguably the most important and direct means of communication between the consumer and the producer. In Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) both share considerable responsibilities in the administration and safeguarding of food labeling policies, following laws set by the Food and Drugs Act of 1985. Health Canada is responsible for safeguarding health and safety for Canadian consumers, while the CFIA is accountable for protecting consumers from misinterpretation and fraud.

Canadian laws require mandatory labeling if there is a health or safety issue with a certain food that could be mitigated through the use of a label. This generally refers to the presence of common allergens, any nutritional information or any change of food composition. Before a product can be sold on supermarket shelves, they must pass through a pre-market regulatory process by Health Canada. All products currently for sale in supermarkets and grocery stores have passed the safety assessment, but it does not mean they are without genetic manipulation. Health Canada follows a stringent seven- to ten-year process in which scientific evaluators research, develop, test and assess the safety of a new GM food. There has been much criticism over the process, especially with NGO-giant Greenpeace, who is urging for the paralleled use of an independent party.

Alarmingly, Canadian standards only allow voluntary labeling of GE foods, though they are in no way mandatory. Unless a company is dedicated to providing full transparency, it is highly unlikely they will voluntarily label their product as containing genetically modified ingredients. The average consumer in Canada is relatively naïve about the products they purchase on a daily basis, forgetting to ask where their food comes from. The only sure way to avoid GMO foods is to buy certified organic products.

The labelling of organic products undergoes many restrictions and regulations according to the Organic Products Regulation of 2009. Under this regulation, a product can only be labeled organic if the percentage of organic content is greater or equal to 95 percent. The product must be certified by a credible certification body and it must be present on the label. For multi-ingredient products with 70 to 95 percent organic content, the law states the label can only declare the product contains “x% of organic ingredients”, which must be certified by a credible institution. It cannot be labeled as organic or use the organic logo. Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent organic content can only claim ingredients as individually organic, not the whole product.

There are many issues with labeling in Canada, as product advertising and marketing can often mislead the consumer into purchasing a product less healthy than it is presented to be. Laws are slowly becoming more stringent, though there remains a large gap between the strict regulations for organic labeling and the relatively non-existent laws for GM food labeling. In August 2011, both the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization declared that countries are free to decide whether to label GMO foods derived from modern methods of biotechnology. The standard encourages labeling, as labels are effective in avoiding potential trade issues in a growing global economy.

Ron Doering, former president of the CFIA, claims that imposing mandatory labeling on all GM or GE products in Canada would be impractical, since “almost all processed food contains genetically engineered ingredients, such as corn, canola or soy.” Since the CFIA’s main penchant is to reduce deceptive labeling, Doering suggests GMO labeling will further confuse the consumer as most products on supermarket shelves contain GE components. This approach ignores the fact that many consumers have a blind faith in food labeling; they assume companies are being truthful about the product’s origin and ingredients. It would be interesting to see how consumers would react if labels notify a buyer of GMO ingredients. Doering claims there is no scientific evidence to render genetically modified foods as unsafe for consumption, though there is much speculation refuting that statement.

Health Canada has approved more than 100 genetically modified foods since 1994, including insect-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant canola. Listed on their website, Health Canada publically releases information regarding the novel foods deemed fit for human consumption. Novel foods are products that lack a history of safe use as a food or have been genetically manipulated. The list is overwhelmingly dominated by Monsanto Canada Inc., with additions by Coca-Cola and Parmalat Canada. The list of approved products ranges from orange juice products enhanced with phytosterols to GE tomatoes. The Flavr Savr tomato, produced by Calgene Inc., has been genetically manipulated to ripen slower, meaning the tomato can be shipped at a riper stage and still arrive fresh at the produce section of a supermarket. Health Canada claims there are no differences in composition or nutritional characteristics, and state the Flavr Savr is as “safe and nutritious as other tomato varieties.” This statement is rather alarming, that a tomato has been developed to go against the grain of nature to ripen at a slower pace — and it’s seen as scientifically equal to regular tomatoes. Current laws state that, since there are no noticeable allergies or safety concerns, there is no need to inform the consumer of its less-than-natural growth cycle.

There is hope for Canadian consumers as the government is currently working on the preliminary stages of creating an appropriate federal approach of labeling novel foods, though the process is quite slow. A consumer should have the right to know the origins of the food they are purchasing, even if the items are deemed essentially equal to non-GMO products. Even if Canada were to change its labeling laws, ideally it would occur alongside the evolution of American labeling laws. Huge trade issues could arise if one country was lax on GMO-labeling policies and the other had stricter policies in place. As one of the largest producers of genetically engineered food, it is surprising that Canada’s regulatory system is as weak as it is. Always read your labels and buy organic whenever you can – it is the only way you can positively know what you are putting in your body. The consequences of using genetic modification are not yet known, but it is safer to take all necessary precautions. In the words of Greenpeace, “Life is not a commodity.”

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