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Voluntary guidelines to allow for labelling of world's genetically modified foods

A vendor picks up corn at her stall in a market in Beijing on December 2, 2009.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

A 20-year international battle to prevent food labels from revealing the presence of genetically modified ingredients has ended, but Canadian consumers will continue to be left in the dark.

On Tuesday, the United States dropped its opposition to guidelines from the world's food safety regulatory agencies on the labelling of food derived from modern biotechnology.

Canada, like the United States, is among the largest international producers of genetically modified food, but it gave up the fight last year after arguing against GM labelling for more than a decade.

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But the guidelines issued by the Codex Alimentarius Commission - a collection of more than 100 agencies that monitor food safety around the world - are voluntary. And Health Canada, which is responsible for food safety in this country, has no plans to require labels on food sold here to be rewritten to indicate the presence of genetically modified organisms.

Stephane Shank, a Health Canada spokesman, said his department would require labelling of GM food products only if there was a clear, scientifically established health risk, or if the genetic modification significantly altered the nutritional value.

"To date," he said, "Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods that have been approved for sale in Canada."

Nearly 70 per cent of the foods that Canadians eat have genetically modified components, and most scientists agree there is no valid research to prove they pose any sort of health threat.

But many developing countries still want the right to inform consumers about GM ingredients.

So the news that the Codex agencies, which met on Tuesday in Geneva, would be issuing GM labelling guidelines was "a huge global victory for consumers around the world, for food sovereignty of nations around the world in the global fight over the future of genetic engineering," said Lucy Sharratt, the co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

"The U.S. was bent on making sure these guidelines did not happen," she said. "And Canada, at very many points, had supported the U.S. position of sabotaging the negotiations and stopping the guidelines."

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The Codex agencies also agreed that each country has the right to adopt its own approach to labelling GM food.

As a result, countries that wish to adopt GM labelling can now do so without facing the threat of a legal challenge from the World Trade Organization. National measures based on Codex guidelines cannot be challenged as a barrier to trade.

Ms. Sharratt said Canada's opposition to GM labelling in other countries ended as a result of public outcry. But she said she does not expect the fight to require GM labels in Canada to end soon.

"There has been over 15 years worth of protests whereby Canadian consumers have demanded mandatory labelling and there are at least nine polls since 1999 that show over 80 per cent of Canadians want mandatory labelling of all genetically modified food," Ms. Sharratt said, "and the government has steadfastly refused to label genetically modified foods."

Although she agrees there is no evidence of health-safety problems, Ms. Sharratt also said it has been a difficult issue to study because GM food is not labelled and, therefore, cannot be monitored.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at the University of Guelph west of Toronto who is an expert on food safety and distribution, said he believes consumers deserve transparency.

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"It's really about risk perceptions, not actual risk," Dr. Charlebois said. "We need to demystify [genetically modified organisms]in general. And by adopting a policy that would actually make labelling mandatory, I think it would force the food industry to educate the public."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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