The Pickle of Labelling GM Salmon and Foods, and How to Avoid It

Health Canada in May, 2016 approved a genetically modified animal (salmon) for human consumption. This food is the first of its kind in the world. A federal committee that looked at the issue has provided its report, which effectively includes a recommendation to not label GM foods.

The Standing Committee on Agriculture and Ari-Food stated it supports mandatory labelling “only when a risk to health has been established …”, and that “no risks to health have been identified for GM foods approved in Canada”. (7,8)

But of course no health risks can be identified, because GM ingredients can’t be traced. Why not? Because they aren’t labelled.  Bit of a Catch 22, eh?

The Pickle.

Canadians want labelling of GM foods. Health Canada in March, 2016 commissioned research to “obtain a more current reading on public opinion”. The findings (at 5) were that 78% of participants want GM foods clearly labelled on packaging, and that “consumers are simply not convinced that GM foods are as safe or safer… relative to comparable non-GM foods”.

Yet Health Canada and the CFIA assured the Committee in its report that “GMOs currently on the market are safe both for human and animal health and for the environment”. Their argument has been heard before: “[T]hat there is no evidence of harmful effects after almost 20 years of GMO use for animal feed and for human consumption”. (at 7)

But of course evidence of harmful effects can’t be found, because GM ingredients are not traceable; again because they are not labelled. Plus the 20 year argument doesn’t work, because Health Canada’s mandate is to ensure it has been established that GM foods are safe (Food and Drug Regulations B.28.002(1)), not wait around to see if harmful effects show up.

They also say they “examine the data provided by the industry according to the protocols of international standards, [and] they also consider the current scientific literature” (at 7). Fair enough, but this isn’t good enough to establish safety.  The data, if any, is provided by the companies, and the standard tests are only 90 days (problems arise after two years generally).  Plus no current scientific literature establishes that GM foods are safe.

It would seem the regulators are in a bit of a pickle on the safety issue. The basis for establishing safety may not be that firm. If they promote mandatory labelling of GM foods, they are admitting that the foods may not be safe, and then Canadians would ask “Well what have you been doing approving these foods?” Especially since Canadians want them labelled.

How to Avoid It.

But there be may be another approach. Under the Food and Drugs Act, all ingredients and components of food must be labelled. There is also a requirement (section 5.1) to label food in a way that is not “misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety”.  The CFIA explains that “It is unacceptable to use partial truths, as these are likely to create a false impression. This includes the failure to disclose the essential facts about the properties or composition of a food…”

Let’s take the GM salmon.  It is the first and only food of its kind in the world.  It differs from “normal” salmon in at least 3 other ways. It contains the genes of an eel-like animal, higher levels of the growth hormone IGF-1 (which is tied to several common cancers), and statistically significant (1.5 times) higher levels of allergen content (see To the Salmon Consumer: I’m not Buying It).  Given these points, to not label GM salmon would likely create an erroneous impression regarding its “character, value, composition and merit”. It would also constitute a failure to disclose essential facts about the properties or composition of food.

The regulators could hang their hats on the Food and Drugs Act and satisfy Canadians’ desire for labelling GM foods without getting into the pickle on safety.

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