Thursday, July 7, 2011

GM labeling agreement

Canada, U.S. downplay significance of GM food labelling agreement
By Sarah Schmidt
Postmedia News
July 6, 2011

OTTAWA — The first international guidance document on labelling genetically modified foods — approved by consensus Tuesday by a body composed of the world’s food safety regulators — prompted bickering Wednesday over whether it represents a boost for countries wanting to bring in mandatory GM food labelling.

The international summit involving more than 100 countries, including Canada, produced the consensus guide on GM labelling in Geneva after two decades of political wrangling among countries that pitted the United States and Canada against Europe and many developing countries.

But the significance of the new Codex commission text emerged as a hugely divisive issue a day later, when consumer groups heralded the document as a consumer-rights milestone while longtime biotechnology proponents said it was no big deal. The world’s largest biotechnology organization even suggested the text could make some nations and international bodies, such as the European Union, more vulnerable to a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge.

Under WTO rules, national measures based on Codex guidance or official texts are protected if they are challenged as a barrier to trade.

Citing an explicit mention of “guidance” for labelling and “different approaches” regarding the labelling of GM foods in the purpose and considerations section, consumer groups are hailing the new document as a major breakthrough, especially for developing countries — many of them keen to move on mandatory labelling but fearful of trade challenges until now.

The European Union already has in place traceability and compulsory labelling rules for GM foods, and European countries were vulnerable to trade challenges from the United States or Canada.

“It’s clear that Codex has agreed that GE foods can be labelled. That’s totally new. This is a major victory,” said Phil Bereano, an activist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington who has attended Codex sessions for the past decade.

“The WTO shield is completely new. That’s why the industry and the U.S. fought against such a guidance document for 18 years.”

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, added that while any Codex guidance is voluntary, this development puts pressure on countries like Canada and the United States, where companies are seeking approval to sell genetically modified pigs and salmon for human consumption.

The public debate over labelling GM salmon is particularly lively in the U.S., and she said North America risks becoming even more isolated if more and more consumers elsewhere get transparent information about the presence of GM foods or ingredients.

Amid the bickering over the new Codex guidance, clarity emerged for Canadian consumers. Health Canada, a longtime opponent of mandatory labelling for GM foods, said the voluntary guidance doesn’t change the department’s position.

And an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Postmedia News that there is nothing in this compilation document that shields countries that bring in mandatory GM labelling from a WTO challenge.

“This is a document of pre-existing language that has already been approved. Nothing new is in the document with regard to the pre-approved language, and all that language is being gathered and filed in one document,” the official said.

Karen Batra, director of food and agriculture communications at Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), added: “Nothing changes as far as the guideline. It still does not mandate labelling. It encourages companies and countries to be consistent with the Codex guideline, which simply says biotech foods don’t need to labelled any more than conventional foods need to be labelled.”

Tom Heilandt, a senior food standards officer at the Codex secretariat, said he can’t speak for the WTO, but said the debate about the collection of existing Codex texts relevant to the labelling of biotech foods was focused on a few key points.

“The main points of dispute in the discussion were in the purpose and considerations and on whether Codex should adopt any guidance at all. It was a big step forward for Codex to find a consensus on this issue,” said Heilandt, heralding the facilitation work of a Canadian committee chairman.

In Canada, there is no produce on the market that is genetically modified, but GM corn, canola, soy and sugar beets grown in Canada end up in products like cornflakes, corn chips, sweeteners, eggs, milk, meat, canola oil, tofu and sugar. Genetically modified cottonseed oil, papaya and squash imported from the United States can also end up on store shelves in Canada in the form of vegetable oil in products and fruit juices.

Since there are no mandatory labelling rules, there are no statistics on the percentage of processed foods containing GM ingredients, but groups estimate that about 70 per cent of processed foods on grocery store shelves in North America contain GM ingredients.

2012 archives
2011 archives
2010 archives
2009 archives
2008 archives
2007 archives
2006 archives
2005 archives
2004 archives
2003 archives
2002 archives