Friday, September 2, 2011
Food fight: labelling genetically modified food
By Christopher Guly
The Lawyers Weekly
September 02 2011
Last month, the world food standards body — the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization — declared that countries are free to decide on whether to label foods derived from modern biotechnology, including foods containing genetically modified organisms. The commission said in a statement that labelling should conform with approved texts “to avoid potential trade issues;” Canada already has such guidelines, says former Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) president Ron Doering, who serves as counsel at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Ottawa.
CFIA and Health Canada, which hold joint responsibility for food labelling policies under the Food and Drugs Act, have guidelines for the labelling of novel foods derived from biotechnology and commonly referred to as genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) foods.
These rules, in part, require mandatory labelling if Health Canada decides there is a health or safety concern related to the food product, such as from allergens or a significant nutrient or compositional change. Otherwise, food manufacturers are free to choose whether they wish to label their products GM or GE — and have specific guidelines under which to do so. In 2004 the Standards Council of Canada introduced a standard for voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering. Under that national standard, any food labelling must be truthful, not misleading or deceptive, and comply with all relevant Canadian regulations.
Imposing mandatory labelling on all GM or GE food products would be impractical, argues Doering, whose practice focuses on agricultural and food law. “Almost all processed food contains genetically engineered ingredients, such as corn, canola or soy.” As a result, such labelling would mislead consumers rather than inform them, since most of what we eat has some biotech components.
Furthermore, Doering says there is no scientific evidence to show that GE food poses any health risk.
Before GE food can be sold in Canada, a biotech company must file a pre-market notification with the CFIA, which conducts an environmental assessment, through field trials, and with Health Canada, “which triggers a comprehensive safety assessment to ensure the food is safe and nutritious,” according to the federal department. A team of molecular biologists, toxicologists, nutritionists, chemists and microbiologists conduct an assessment with Health Canada’s Food Directorate and follow Codex Alimentarius Commission standards.
While Canada and the United States have faced criticism — particularly from the European Union — for not adopting mandatory GM-food labelling, the resulting two-decade-long dispute has been “ideological and not based on science,” says Doering, who will teach food law and risk analysis, including a section on GM food labelling, in the chemistry department at Carleton University in Ottawa this fall.
“There has been a political attempt, on the part of the EU, to use the Codex Committee on Food Labelling [chaired by Canada] to score points that would be helpful for its economic interests and consistent with its ideological position that there was something wrong about genetically modified food.”
In so doing, he says the EU has done a “great disservice to the developing world, by telling African countries not to accept agricultural products that were genetically engineered and denying them export opportunities as a result.” Doering adds that the EU carried more clout on the committee since it had more votes than Canada and the U.S. He explains that as far back as the late 1990s, the EU attempted to block GM food exports from Canada and the U.S., but consistently lost subsequent cases before the World Trade Organization.
However, following the release of the recent Codex guidelines, which, as Doering points out, set out to define GM food and not create a universal labelling regime, a country’s national approach to labelling GM food can no longer be challenged as a trade barrier.
“It’s become mostly a public relations issue,” says Jeremy de Beer, an associate professor in the common law section at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, who regularly writes about biotech issues.
He explains that on one side, Canada and the U.S. consider GM food products to be essentially equivalent to non-GM food “until proven by scientific evidence to be different or, in the case of labelling regulations, unsafe from a health perspective.”
On the other side, some European and other countries consider GM food products different until there is scientific evidence to prove they’re the same as other food.
“Food labelling is part of a broader social and political debate involving consumer organizations that believe people have a right to be informed about what they eat,” says de Beer.
He adds that while it is widely accepted that biotechnology is going to play a key role in feeding the world in the future, policymakers will need to acknowledge health, ecological, socio-cultural, economic and legal issues that arise.
For Doering, the major issue relates to trade. Were Canada to impose mandatory GM food labelling, the U.S. — from which Canada imports as many as 6,000 truckloads of food daily — would stop its cross-border shipments, resulting in “a lot of empty shelves in the supermarket.”
That scary scenario won’t happen anytime soon, according to de Beer. He explains that the U.S. and Canada have been accused of sabotaging negotiations around the labelling of GM food because in North America genetic modification plays a major role in agricultural biotech and is generally accepted by the industry and most consumers as a reality.
“The question has come up as to whether Canadian regulators will require mandatory labelling of GM food products, but they haven’t done so yet,” says de Beer. “Whether that should happen depends, technically and legally, on a science-based assessment of risks. But social, cultural, ethical and other considerations cannot be ignored in appreciating consumers’ sensitivities and in developing overarching policies.”