Last week, the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC) issued its Interim Report on Improving the Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods and Other Novel Foods in Canada. The report attempts to address the realities and the challenge of having GM foods in the national food supply. Arthur Hanks took a look at its strengths and weaknesses, and found out what the industry was saying.

The 21-member CBAC was formed to provide advice to the Federal government on all issues related to the development and application of biotechnology.

On the point issue – labelling – the CBAC recommends the voluntary labelling of GM foods, on the basis that while Canadians want easy access to reliable and complete information, the absence of a systematic and reliable standard for labelling GM foods prevents the verification of claims such as “GM free”.

“Consumer choice is only meaningful when there is a good system behind it,” says Peter Phillips, a member of the CBAC committee and the Research chair for Biotechnology and Agriculture for the University of Saskatchewan.

Phillip says that stumbling blocks to regulating GM foods include problems with testing standards and protocols, as well as a lack of traceability in that there is a lack of auditing in the food supply chain.

“The supply chains are inaccurate and the testing procedures for GM content are expensive and inefficient, so this needs to be addressed,” says Phillips, adding as an example. “There is no regulatory system in the world that calls for mandatory labelling of processed oils, because there is no protein to test for in the oil,” says Phillips.

To date, the CBAC has looked at available international models – currently 35 countries, including the EU, Australia, Japan,

China and Israel have in place or are implementing mandatory labelling – but Phillips says there is no model that is satisfactory or internationally accepted.

“We have a mixed bag of labelling systems, ” says Phillips, ” which vary from [allowing] 0-5% GM content in GM free labels.”

In total, Health Canada has approved 43 GM foods for sale in Canada, including “Roundup Ready” soybeans, and BT corn and potatoes, but there is no requirement that they be labelled as such. According to Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, GM content labelling is only required when significant nutritional changes have been made to the product, or due to the presence of potential food allergens.

How useful is content labelling?

How meaningful would GM content labelling be? GM foods and ingredients are widespread in the Canadian marketplace. One survey, conducted in 2000 by the auditing firm KPMG for the University of Guelph, says that 70% of processed foods have some ingredients that might be genetically modified. The majority of these ingredients are common such as soy, canola, or corn, usually appearing on a food label as an undifferentiated “vegetable oil”.

But there has been demand for such a label, and independently, many companies in the health food sector have adapted non-GM labels on their products. This has drawn a backlash. This summer, the country’s largest retailer, Loblaws, ordered its suppliers to remove or cover any labels that identify food as being free of GM ingredients. Loblaws’ staff has already wielded black felt markers for this purpose in advance the September 1st deadline for suppliers.

CBAC’s report is the second major report on biotechnology released in Canada this year. It follows an effort by the prestigious Royal Society of Canada, which was released in February 2001. Many of the Royal Society’s recommendations – including voluntary labelling and a call for tighter regulations – have been adapted in the CBAC report.

Where it differs, says Phillips, is that the Royal Society focussed on the science of biotechnology, and “we were asked to look at the regulatory process and structure. We spent more time looking at how the system chooses to do the things they choose to do.”

CBAC’s report helps feed into the action on the regulatory track: The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD) is currently working with the Canadian General Standards Board on a voluntary national standard. This standards process was initiated in 1999 and is expected to be completed sometime in 2002.

Both GM content and GM-free labels are on the discussion table. CBAC says that voluntary standards, for both GM content and GM-free claims, would allow the initial testing of the adequacy and effectiveness of the label.

“Our idea is to create a credible system and put the challenge to the industry,” says Phillips. “If there is something there, somebody will buy it. We need to set up a labelling system that is credible and testable and then provide real choice at a lower cost than requiring everything to be labelled.”

In total, the CBAC interim report on biotechnology makes five main and 24 supplementary recommendations aimed at improving the whole of federal regulatory system for GM and other novel foods. Beyond the labelling issue, recommendations include: a more clear-cut regulatory oversight, greater transparency of government, a more accountable management structure, better safety during research, and added monitoring and data collection about the potential long-term health and environment impacts of GM products.

New public policy post?

One interesting suggestion is the creation of a public policy officer, at deputy minister level, who would be the government’s point person for public concerns about biotechnology. As responsibility towards biotechnology is spread around seven ministries, the government is challenged to give adequate information.

“This failure to communicate helps feed public distrust of biotechnology, and creates a highly charged and emotional food debate”

As public concerns are multidimensional, ranging from questions from food safety, consumer rights and ethical issues of transgenetics to genetic drift, to farm production issues and questions about corporate control, narrow cast government ministries are often ill-prepared to answer questions.

This failure to communicate helps feed public distrust of biotechnology, and creates a highly charged and emotional food debate.

The regulators have their work cut out for them: a new national poll suggests widespread public misgivings. According to an Ipsos-Reid/Globe and Mail/CTV poll released Thursday August 30th, 63% of Canadians surveyed recently said they would be less likely to buy a food product that is genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients

Critics of CBAC, including activist groups Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians have criticised the interim report saying it’s impossible to monitor the long-term health impact of GM foods without a tracing or labelling system in place.

The Canadian Health Food Association says that the voluntary approach will not work because food distributors and retailers will not voluntarily label their products as containing genetically modified material. The 1000 member-strong CHFA is calling for mandatory labelling as part of their Families for A Safe Food Supply campaign.

“…Canadians do not want to blindly consume foods that contain GMOs,” says CHFA President Donna Herringer. “People want the right to read a label and make an informed decision about what they put in their bodies. Voluntary labelling will not solve the problem and will not give the Canadians the tools they need to make informed decisions.”

Few alternatives for consumers seeking to avoid GM

In the meantime, without a labelling regimen in place, consumers wanting to buy non GM foods have few alternatives. They can buy unprocessed, raw foods – avoiding the Bt potatoes or corn though – or buy into Canada’s already existing GM-free label: certified organic.

Prospects for mandatory labelling appear poor, as GM foods and ingredients already have a dominant position and most food manufactures appear opposed to it. Retailers and manufacturers would incur additional costs and potentially face liability if they cannot back their claims with documentation or lab analysis.

More likely scenario: a voluntary GM-free label, backed by a regulatory regimen, which would allow for consumer choice and for grocers to differentiate products on their shelves, creating GM foods as a premium brand. As a stopgap while regulations are developed, wise companies could offer free helplines, more point of sale shelftalkers and more information in paper or on the web.

However, there is a fly in the ointment: growing GM contamination of organic foods, now as high as 1-2% according to some reports, could render claims of GM-free meaningless in the future. Cultivation of crops such as organic canola has dropped, as the risk of contamination is high.

And what of future biotechnological innovation? The regulators are wondering themselves. “The products that are going through regulation right now are fairly simple foods, ” says Phillips. “But in the future, genetic modification will produce more complex foods. How are we going to regulate those?”

Also on the horizon: GM wheat is under development and could be commercialised as early in 2003-4. In this case, activist groups have been joined at the table by The Canadian Wheat Board, Canada’s single desk wheat and barley marketing agency, in opposition.

A public comment period on the CBAC report remains open until January 2002. The CBAC’s final report and formal recommendations on GM foods will be made available in early 2002.

By Arthur Hanks, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Handbook on the Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives

The Future of Farm Input Distribution in the United States and Canada: Strategies for agrochemicals, seed, fertilizer, feed, and finance