Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Davenport for bringing this issue to the attention of the House again. I hear people discussing this from all sides of the issue. They are not really that far apart. We are talking about voluntary labelling, mandatory labelling and we are making some really good progress toward this.
I want to acknowledge the great work on the GMOs and on any environmental issue by one of the great deans of the House, the member of Parliament for Davenport, who I respect. I thank him for his work and is always sharing it with Canadians. I also want to thank the excellent work done on this issue by Dorothy and Lauchlin Chisholm, residents from the great riding of Ottawa—Vanier and formerly of HFL&A, Napanee, friends of the riding and personal friends of my wife and mine forever.
We may differ a little bit on this but as the House may be aware, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency share accountability for food labelling policies under the Food and Drugs Act. Health Canada's responsibilities derive from this mandate for health and safety issues, while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for protecting consumers for misrepresentation and fraud and for prescribing basic food labelling and advertising standards.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recognize that the labelling of foods derived from biotechnology has become an important issue for consumers. The Government of Canada continues to discuss an appropriate approach for the labelling of biotechnology derived foods with Canadians and international standards organizations around the world. Several initiatives are underway to determine the most appropriate mechanism for providing consumers with information necessary to make informed food choices.
We are here to discuss a private member's bill, Bill C-220, which was put forward in the House and which was defeated in October 2001. Like the previous bill, this bill proposes amendments to the Food and Drugs Act to make labelling and post-market monitoring of genetically modified foods mandatory. Specifically, the bill proposes mandatory labelling of food containing more than 1% genetically modified material, either as a genetically modified food, a genetically modified food ingredient or an ingredient derived from genetically modified organisms.
It should be noted that one initiative currently underway in Canada is the development of a Canadian standard for the voluntary labelling of foods derived from biotechnology, a project led by the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors and the Canadian General Standards Board, CGSB.
The development of the draft standard involved the participation of a committee composed of approximately 100 organizations, including consumer groups, food companies, producers, environmental groups, general interest groups and government, in several meetings held since November 1999. The proposed standard describes requirements for making positive or negative labelling claims regarding the presence of a food or food ingredient that is a product of genetic engineering for either single or multi-ingredient foods. A tolerance level of 5% is being proposed with verification by either analytical methods or proper documentation.
We would like to note that significant resolution has been achieved by the CGSB committee since the first ballot vote held in January. If the second ballot is successful, the final standard could be published as early as spring 2003.
Like the CGSB's voluntary standard, the bill provides a narrower definition of genetically modified food than what already exists under division 28 of the Food and Drugs Act, also referred to as an novel foods regulation. Under division 28, “genetically modified” includes modifications obtained through the use of more traditional techniques such as chemical mutagenesis and conventional breeding as well as those obtained from modern biotechnology.
The novel foods regulation permits Health Canada to assess the safety of all novel foods, irrespective of the method used for the development and thus including genetically modified foods prior to their sale in Canada. Only after a novel food is determined not to pose a health or safety concern is it allowed to be sold on the Canadian market.
Mr. Speaker, we have the safest and I would say the best food in the world today.
Health Canada notes that Bill C-220 proposes a 1% tolerance level but does not provide a rationale for the specific tolerance level, nor does it define specialty foods which the bill proposes to exempt from the prescribed requirements. In addition, it remains unclear how this tolerance level would be applied to multi-ingredient foods.
Health Canada also notes that the proposed amendments would apply to products such as oils and refined sugars which contain neither recombinant DNA nor expressed protein after processing. For these products, verification would have to rely on documentation alone.
Bill C-220 also proposes that the Minister of Health maintain a publicly available list of all foods offered for sale in Canada that contain more than 1% genetically modified material.
In view of the diversity and constant evolution of the Canadian food supply, the maintenance of such a list of individual marketed foods that have a content of more than 1% material that is derived from a genetically modified organism would demand a considerable investment of time and resources.
For example, it is estimated that today the average grocery store contains more than 20,000 different products, approximately 70% of which are multi-ingredient processed foods. As a result there is a large number of foods on the shelf today which at one point or another may contain one or more GM ingredients or no GM ingredients at all. This is because manufacturers regularly change the formulation of these foods, depending upon the availability and price of individual ingredients. Overall the large number of products affected and the frequent changes in product formulations make the maintenance by the department of a current list of products containing more than 1% GM material challenging and impractical.
In addition, to facilitate the creation of this list, effective strategies for segregation and tracking throughout the food production and distribution chain would have to be developed for all commodities.
Bill C-220 also proposes that the Minister of Health be responsible for conducting research, including post-market monitoring of genetically modified foods.
The government invested $90 million to enhance the regulation of biotechnology in budget 2000. Health Canada and other departments have established research programs which are aimed at further enhancing the scientific capacity underpinning our safety assessment of biotechnology products.
The research program conducted by Health Canada includes projects on post-market monitoring approaches for biotechnology derived products, including genetically modified foods; animal models for assessment; and toxicity testing of whole foods. This investment further confirms the federal government's commitment to ensuring that products allowed on the market in Canada are safe and nutritious.
I know the debate will continue for a long time. As I said earlier, I think we are close to getting together on this. It is a matter of education. Do people want to have all the products in the grocery store with a GMO label on them, or do we want to arrive at say, a 5% level where we could work together on this?
In conclusion, the bill was clearly intended to respond to consumer demands for choice. However as I have noted, there are several elements in the bill which require greater consideration.
The government will continue to work with all relevant stakeholders and indeed all interested Canadians to develop mechanisms that provide meaningful information to Canadian consumers regarding food derived from biotechnology that is consistent with international approaches. We will continue to have the best and the safest food in the world.