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Canada Bureaucrats Reject
Mandatory Labeling of Frankenfoods

The Canadian Press (CP)
August 26, 2002

Federal committee recommends voluntary labelling of GM foods, for now
BY STEPHEN THORNE


OTTAWA (CP) _ Existing genetically modified foods pose no risk to human
health, a federal advisory committee said Monday, but it recommended
voluntary labelling and monitoring of products anyway.

In a report focusing primarily on plant foods, the Canadian Biotechnology
Advisory Committee said voluntary labelling should be instituted with clear
guidelines.

It suggested Ottawa assess the system's effectiveness within five years and
consider making labelling of genetically modified foods, or GM foods,
mandatory if companies are not co-operating.

Meanwhile, it said, Canada should push for international labelling
standards. We didn't find any evidence that the products currently on the
market present any greater health or environmental risk,'' said Suzanne
Hendricks, a nutritionist and committee co-chair.

But she added that's no reason to be complacent.

Consumers want an opportunity to be able to choose not only because of risk
but according to their convictions, very often.''

Consumer groups favour mandatory labelling on grounds that biotech products
may have yet-unknown health or environmental risks, and consumers have a
right to know what they're eating.

Polls in many countries suggest that up to 95 per cent of people support
that view, the committee was told.

Nadege Adam, a biotech campaigner with the Council of Canadians, said the
report ignores those statistics and is predictably biased toward the
biotechnology industry.

It pretty much repeats all the arguments put forth by that industry,'' Adam
said. It's also full of contradiction and the policy suggestions are as weak
as they can make them.''

The committee preaches the precautionary principle'' but doesn't say GM
foods should be withheld from the market until their potential health
effects are fully assessed in laboratories, she noted.

Opponents of mandatory labelling say it should be required only if there is
a known health risk or nutritional difference from non-GM foods.

Mandatory and voluntary labelling systems exist in some countries, but most
are ineffective, said Hendricks, adding she hopes a labelling standard can
be achieved within five years.

Canada should base its system on a very rigorous and applicable standard and
use that as a leverage to try to develop a harmonized international
system,'' she said.

Genetic plant products have been on the market for only about 10 years _ not
long enough, say critics, to adequately assess their effects on human and
environmental health.

But Hendricks said most genetic alterations are relatively simple _
primarily aimed at insect and disease resistance, thus eliminating the need
for herbicides and pesticides.

It is next-generation products that concern the committee most _ transgenic,
or cloned, meats and plants with enhanced nutritional value. It will assess
those in a later report.

The committee, made up of more than 20 experts in several fields such as
science, ethics, law and the environment, also recommends more public
dialogue on related ethical and social issues.

Brian Ellis, who headed a Royal Society of Canada scientific panel on food
biotechnology, said he was pleased with Monday's report.

But he noted the recommendations aren't binding on a government that so far
has shown little enthusiasm for changing much.

I have the uneasy feeling they're more or less hoping this whole thing will
go away if they wait long enough,'' he said.

The society made 53 similar recommendations in February 2001, including
calls for voluntary labelling, improved transparency and thoroughness of the
regulatory system, and more outside expertise in testing and regulation
regimes.

Ellis, a biotechnologist at the University of British Columbia, said Ottawa
has drafted a general action plan but done little concrete.

It hasn't moved things forward very much,'' he said. But given the parallels
that I see between these recommendations and ours, they're getting a pretty
consistent message here.''

The federal biotechnology panel reports to seven different ministers,
including health, agriculture and fisheries.

Canada is the world's third-largest producer of genetically modified crops.
The federal government has approved more than 40 varieties of modified corn,
potatoes, tomatoes, squash and other plants.

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