Case made for labelling, but questions abound

To label or not to label: that is the question.

And according to one food biotech critic, we will never know the answer as to whether Canada should legislate mandatory labels for genetically modified ingredients in food unless we try it.

“We can say there’s a discrepancy, but until we put labelling on the products, we actually don’t know. So why don’t we give Canadians the benefit of the doubt that they want that information because they’re going to use it,” said Lucy Sharratt of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

There are numerous studies on both sides of the debate. One side says consumers have a right to the information, while those opposed to mandatory rules says it would unfairly tarnish the image of food containing GMOS because it implies they are of lower quality or somehow harmful.

Sharratt said recent polls show Canadian consumers want GMO labels.

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She said GM food ingredients continue to increase in processed foods and there are GM apples, potatoes and salmon coming to store shelves soon.

AquaBounty salmon is the first genetically modified food animal to be approved for sale in Canada. Health Canada does not require the salmon to be labelled as a GM product because it is not deemed a health risk.

“Now is a great opportunity for the government to establish labelling because these new products are reinforcing the demand that Canadians have for labelling,” she said.

She said without labelling, consumers are confused and burdened with difficult research, unlike in the organic sector where products are labelled certified registered.

“While consumers can seek out organic foods to avoid if they want to, (with) genetically modified foods that’s not always an available choice,” she said.

She also thinks labelling could help traditional food markets.

“One of the major problems is that some the new GM products when they are introduced actually jeopardize the existing markets for those products,” she said.

“So labelling would go someway to resolving that issue as well. It would assist apple producers, for example, who are concerned about consumer reaction to a GM apple if, in fact, consumers knew where that GM apple was.”

“The only organic products (in retail outlets) are certified organic products.”

Stuart Smyth, who researches biotechnology and innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, said the push for GM labelling is coming predominantly from the organic and natural food industry.

“They believe that consumers will perceive that as a warning sign and try to avoid buying products that are labeled as GM or obtaining GMOs,” he said.

Canada does not have a mandatory labelling policy because of its established science-based regulatory system.

Labels are only required when there are health risks, like a potential food allergy, or significant changes to the nutritional qualities of the food.

“So any label information has to contribute to improved nutrition, or safety, and/or efficacy of food products,” he said.

“The regulatory agencies and predominantly Health Canada have decided that mandatory labelling for GM does not increase the safety of the food products.”

Smyth thinks most consumers would not be any better served if mandatory labelling were implemented.

“Food companies would simply put either ‘contains GMOs, or ‘May Contain GMOs, on every single product they make,” he said.

“I struggle to see how trust could be increased through the blanket use of a very vague and generic term such as “may contain.” Consumers are still no better informed.”

He said recent studies suggest that about three quarters of Canadians want food products labelled for GM, but analysis suggests almost half of Canadians rarely or never look at labels.

“So about one in three Canadians really want labelling and may look at labels at an infrequent or semi-regular basis,” he said.

“The reality is the vast majority of Canadians pay no attention to labels.”

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said labelling would help solve many consumer issues surrounding a lack of trust and transparency toward the biotech industry.

“A lot of constituents believe that mandatory labelling could actually eliminate the mistrust that is out there between many consumers and the biotechnology and the biotech industry,” he said.

Charlebois said he has advocated for about 15 years to embrace the technology of genetically modified crops and for labelling food products.

He said the science-based evidence supports the use of biotechnology in agriculture, but many special interest groups have successfully convinced consumers otherwise without much proof that GMOs pose a risk.

However, opponent’s cases are weakening as more studies show the safety of GM food.

“That’s why I think people are looking for some closure as a result of many years of denial from the biotechs. That’s how I’m assessing the situation,” he said. “At some point, I’m not sure that labelling will be useful for a long period of time because people will get used to it.”

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