Elisabeth Abergel, PhD
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (a joint body of the UN World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization concerned with food sanitary laws) met in July and agreed in principle about the need for global guidelines for the pre-market testing of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (a joint body of the UN World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization concerned with food sanitary laws) met in July and agreed in principle about the need for global guidelines for the pre-market testing of genetically engineered (GE) foods. The international guidelines are expected to be ready in 2003 and are seen as a first step towards the safety assessment of GE foods on a global scale.
Deep divisions among the 165 member states (representing 98 percent of the world population) about the issue of GE labelling cast a shadow on news of the Commission's agreement. While Codex regards the safety testing of GE foods to be important due to their potential to cause allergic reactions, it failed to be consistent in its approach by not calling for product labelling. These new guidelines are therefore not expected to appease safety concerns. Persistent demands from people around the world for GE-free foods, meaningful product labelling, more rigorous and longer-term environmental and health studies to determine the desirability and safety of GE foods remain unanswered, especially amidst reports of safety regulations that favour the protection of export markets over strict environmental and health controls.
Unlike the European Union (EU), Japan and Korea, Canada has no mandatory labelling rules for genetically modified foods. Labelling of GMOs operates on a voluntary basis with no clear guidelines about the type and quality of information consumers receive. The Canadian General Standards Board has been charged with the task of investigating GE labelling regulations by the federal government. It's not a fast-track approach.
Shopping for Information
Canadian shoppers may be surprised to hear that their local Loblaws, Sobeys, Safeway, A&P supermarkets and other large grocery chains refuse to stock products labelled GMO-free.
This policy would seem to go against the wishes of 93 per cent of Canadians who, when recently polled, expressed a strong desire for information about the foods they eat. Since Loblaws, Canada's largest grocery retailer, and others don't believe in GMO-free labels, why not allow the labelling of foods that contain or are themselves genetically modified? Better yet, why don't we pass legislation to protect foods and crops from contamination by GMOs in the first place?
If, according to Loblaws officials and the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, GMO-free labels constitute false claims (it has been suggested that nothing is truly GMO free any more due to genetic pollution, although some jurisdictions such as the EU allow a certain percentage of contamination to be considered GMO-free), what about the conspicuous lack of labels on products derived through biotechnology?
In order to maintain exports to France, the Quebec brewer Unibroue was required to obtain certification by the Canadian federal government guaranteeing that its products were GE-free. However, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal agency responsible for regulating food safety, asked the brewer to withdraw labels stating that its products were GMO-free and CFIA certified. Had Unibroue not advertised this fact in its home country, the federal government would not have found it necessary to ask for a court injunction against the company. The CFIA objected to the use of its name and tried to have the certification removed from Unibroue's advertising, claiming that the company was breaking food and drug laws.
It seems that the certificate was only intended for the export market. Nevertheless, the CFIA was denied its bid for an injunction to have Unibroue's labels removed.
Two important lessons can be drawn from the above stories about the GE labelling situation: 1) Canada needs to develop mandatory labelling legislation for GE foods that respect people's right to know what they are eating; 2) In complying with Unibroue's demand for GE-free certification, the federal government showed that GE labelling is possible, and not just for the export market.