It was closer, much closer, than many had expected.

A bill in Canada’s House of Commons calling for labelling of GM content in foods was defeated Wednesday by a tally of 126-91.

The bill – championed by Liberal backbencher Charles Caccia – called for mandatory labelling of foods with higher than 1% GM content. As a private members motion, it was a long shot to be introduced into parliamentary business, but attracted enough support across party lines to make it out of committee.

In the end, the government position won out.

The Federal Government is against mandatory labelling of GM content foods.

According to Lyle Vanclief, Minster of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, labelling must be “meaningful, credible, and enforceable.” GM labelling does not reflect recognised health or dietary concerns and would represent a significant departure from established labelling laws. However, government and industry are open to the concept of voluntary GM labelling as a marketing tool.

The close vote was foreshadowed the week before when Health Minister Alan Rock said he was in favour of mandatory labelling. This surprise announcement put Rock firmly out of step with his own ministry and other senior departments involved with regulating biotechnology.

Rock emphasised that his view was not based on health concerns, but on the consumer’s right to know. He must be reading the papers. A public opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace and conducted by Decima Research in August found that 95.2% of Canadians believed that they had a right to know whether their food had been genetically modified, and 86.5% of poll respondents preferred a mandatory labelling approach over a voluntary one.

A process is underway to set voluntary GM standards. In addition to a public comment period on draft standards currently underway, further public hearings on the issue are to be scheduled this fall.

By Arthur Hanks, correspondent