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An overwhelming majority of Canadians thinks that the government has provided insufficient information about genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food and believes that all foods containing GMOs should be labelled as such.

The Consumers' Association of Canada released a study Wednesday which indicates the depth of distrust Canadians have for GMO foods, which have become increasingly common over the last decade.

"Mandatory labels on food products tell consumers how much salt, fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates are in a particular product," said Peggy Kirkeby, vice-president of issues and policy at the Consumers' Association. "Yet, when it comes to genetically modified ingredients, the federal government has said 'no, they aren't going to give this information to Canadian consumers'."

The poll - which was conducted by Decima research and surveyed 2,000 people in October of this year - found that 91 per cent of Canadians wanted labels listing GMO content and that 88 per cent think such labels should be made mandatory. Support for labelling was found to cross differences of income, gender, region or education.

"It is very rare to get Canadians to overwhelmingly agree on a single issue, but the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods is such an issue," Ms. Kirkeby said. "There is no doubt that Canadians want information about what is in their food. … Consumers simply just don't trust the food industry to voluntarily provide the necessary information."

In Canada - where extensive consultations have been held by the Canadian General Standards Board, the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and other interested groups - industry advocates are firm that GMO products pose no danger and that mandatory labelling would pose an onerous burden.

About 70 per cent of processed foods contain GMOs, major crops that come from genetically altered seed are corn, soybeans and canola. Some of these products are labelled by the food industry, which currently operates under a voluntary disclosure system.

Ms. Kirkeby said that the issue cuts across partisan lines, noting that members from four of the five major federal parties have proposed private member's bills mandating labelling of GMO food.

"There will be a new prime minister and Liberal government next week and Canadians are looking forward to fresh ideas," she said. "On behalf of Canadian consumers the Consumers' Association will be formally asking the new government to introduce legislation to mandate labelling of genetically modified foods."

A government advisory panel in the summer of 2002 issued a report recommending that voluntary labelling be used for the next five years and called for:

  • Ottawa to designate someone to oversee government communication about GM foods;
  • federal regulators be more accountable;
  • long-term research be conducted into GM and other "novel organisms" in the food chain;
  • research into the environmental impact of GM crops be examined;
  • research into long-term heath effects related to the consumption of specific foods, including GM foods;
  • creation of a committee composed of industry and non-government organizers to discuss GM foods.

Dozens of foreign governments have adopted labelling regulations that mandate disclosure of nutritional or compositional changes, though they tend to exempt highly processed foods like cooking oils, starches and sugars. As yet, no government insists that foodstuffs from animals raised on feed including GMOs be labelled.

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