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"When all is said and done, it still gives us just a voluntary standard with manufacturers having the power to decide if they label or not." Canada will soon have a new set of labelling standards for food.

"When all is said and done, it still gives us just a voluntary standard with manufacturers having the power to decide if they label or not."
Canada will soon have a new set of labelling standards for foods. Manufacturers may voluntarily label foods that are genetically engineered (GE) or contain GE ingredients, but they won’t be required by law to do so. Does this mean, as some suggest, that the standards process was an expensive exercise in futility?

A brief chronology of highlights:

On September 17, 1999, the Canadian General Standards Board Committee on Voluntary Labelling of Foods Obtained or Not Obtained Through Genetic Modification began working on standards.

The 53 voting members ranged from industry groups and food processors and producers to government agencies and academic institutions. Only four members clearly represented consumer organizations.

On November 16, 1999, some voting members stepped down. More than 25 environmental, consumer, and social justice groups demanded that the Committee change its mandate from voluntary to mandatory labelling. It didn’t, and the deliberations continued.

On March 13, 2003, more than 50 groups protested the Committee’s voluntary standard.

By August 2, 2003, the Consumer’s Association of Canada&which had remained involved&withdrew, stating, “The Committee has been developing a voluntary standard that may satisfy industry, but does not meet the needs of consumers.”

In September 2003, when the Committee announced their consensus on voluntary labelling standards, all consumer groups had either withdrawn from the process or voted against the standards.

So what do consumers want?

In 1994, a national Optima poll revealed 95 per cent of Canadians want labels to state whether food is genetically engineered. In 1999, in a national Environics poll, 81 per cent of Canadians disagreed with the statement that special labelling of GE foods isn’t necessary. In 2001, a national Decima poll revealed that 97 per cent of respondents favoured mandatory labelling.

In the latter poll, only 12 per cent favoured a voluntary approach, which is what Canada will likely have as early as mid-2004. The new standard will also allow products containing five per cent GE ingredients to be labelled as non-GE.

Proponents claim voluntary labels are enough and mandatory labelling would undermine Canada’s regulatory guidelines, which currently accept GE foods as safe.

Now the standard will go through an internal government review, followed by enactment into legislation. “When all is said and done, it still gives us just a voluntary standard with manufacturers having the power to decide if they label or not,” Mel Fruitman, president of the Consumer Association of Canada, told Western Producer. “Nothing less than mandatory will guarantee consumer choice.”

Interestingly, during the time the Committee deliberations took place, several major Canadian grocers forced manufacturers who were distributing through their stores to remove “non-GE” labels from products, effectively diminishing consumer choice.

Will the food industry volunteer to label GE food? This remains to be seen, but health-conscious consumers can support groups such as the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, which continue to promote mandatory labelling in Canada.

For more information, visit canadians.org, sierraclub.org, greenpeace.ca, and

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