GM food labelling: legislation needed to avoid confusion?

Has the GMO labelling debate officially arrived in Canada?

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced May 19 that they had approved AquAdvantage Salmon, a genetically modified fish, for livestock and human consumption.

It’s the first time a GM animal has been approved in Canada. The approval extends to filets and livestock feed, including fish meal and fish oil, and comes after years of scientific review by Canadian scientists.

Not surprisingly, the decision garnered quite a bit of attention, particularly from the media, who swarmed Health Minister Jane Philpott and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay after question period.

More than a few wanted to know if the fish, which won’t be ready for market for another year and a half, would be labelled.

“So can you tell us if consumers will be able to tell whether this is genetically modified or not?” one reporter wanted to know.  

“Will it be labelled?”

Under current regulations, the answer to that question is a resounding no, given “no health and safety concerns were identified” by Canadian scientists, Health Canada, the CFIA, Environment Canada, or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Yet both Philpott and MacAulay appeared to leave the labelling door open. Neither came out saying the fish should be labelled, yet neither defended current regulations either.

Less than an hour after Health Canada announced the fish had been approved, MacAualy told reporters he had instructed the House of Commons agriculture committee to look into Canadian regulations on GM animals.

He said the committee would be required to report back its findings and recommendations by the end of the year.

As for labelling, “I don’t think it’s proper to exclude,” he told reporters. “What the committee is, is a body onto itself, and it’s the committee’s responsibility to evaluate the situation and come up with a report for us. 

“But it has nothing to do with the science-based research,” he said, insisting the fish was safe and that he would eat it.

That positioning didn’t sit well with Conservative agriculture critic Chris Warkentin.

“Scientists shouldn’t be overruled by parliamentarians,” he said, noting he didn’t feel comfortable being asked to study an issue he felt should be left to science.

“If the minister is uncomfortable with the decisions that his own bureaucrats are making, then he should explain why that is the case,” Warkentin said.

Yet reporters in Ottawa weren’t the only ones raising concerns about labelling.

NDP health critic Don Davies stressed consumers have a right to know about what’s in their food.

He said GM food and ingredient have become a “hot button issue” in Canada, and Health Canada should take note.

“I fear that Health Canada and the ministry has put the needs of the industry above the rights of consumers to know what they’re ingesting,” Davies said.

At the moment, there is no GM labelling legislation — government or otherwise — on Parliament’s agenda.

As of May 19, a private member’s bill by NDP MP Murray Rankin on GM labelling from the previous Parliament had not been reintroduced. It’s not known whether Rankin plans to reintroduce his bill.

U.S, legislators are already grappling with GMO labelling on AquAdvantage Salmon.

A line in a broad spending bill passed by Congress requires GM fish to be labelled. The move forced the Food and Drug Administration to ban imports and sales of the fish two months after it was approved.

Meanwhile, Vermont is set to become the first U.S. state to re-quire GM labelling. The law takes effect July 1.

With anti-GMO activists becoming more vocal and consumer pressure increasing, the question now is whether Canadian legislators are headed down a similar path.

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