Mr. Speaker, we are here today to discuss a private member's bill, Bill C-517, which was recently tabled in the House.
Bill C-517 proposes amendments to the Food and Drugs Act in order to require the mandatory labelling of all foods derived from a genetically modified organism or containing an ingredient derived from a genetically modified organism.
First of all, let me remind the House that Health Canada is responsible for ensuring that all foods, including foods derived from genetically modified organisms, are safe prior to entering the Canadian food system.
I would like to point out that this bill provides a narrower definition of genetically modified food than that which already exists under division 28 of the Food and Drugs Act, also referred to as the novel foods regulations.
Under division 28, “genetically modify” 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.
Health Canada regulates genetically modified foods as novel foods. The Food and Drugs Act and regulations have defined the concept of “novel food” to include those products derived through specific genetic modification.
This concept also encompasses foods that may have undergone a significant change in composition or nutritional value as a result of a manufacturing or packaging process, or any substance that does not have a history of safe use as a food.
The novel foods regulations permit Health Canada to assess the safety of all novel foods, irrespective of the method used for their development prior to their sale in Canada. Only after a novel food is determined safe for human consumption is it allowed to be sold on the Canadian market.
I would like to stress that amendments to the Food and Drugs Act as proposed in Bill C-517 would create a two tier system for genetically modified foods.
Depending on the method used in the development of the specific food, foods falling under the new definition would be required to be labelled to indicate the method of production, while others derived from more traditional modification methods, such as mutagenesis, would not be subject to mandatory labelling.
We have a rigorous process in Canada. Novel foods regulations require that Health Canada be notified prior to the marketing of any novel food in Canada so that a thorough safety assessment can be performed for each product.
The basis of these assessments by Health Canada scientists is a comparison of each novel food with a conventional counterpart and requires a critical evaluation of the scientific information and results of research studies provided in accordance with Health Canada requirements.
The information requirements are comprehensive. Typically, they include a complete description of the food product, its intended use, a molecular characterization of any novel traits, biochemical and compositional analysis, toxicological, nutritional and allergenicity data, and an estimate of dietary exposure and anticipated use patterns by the average consumer, including population subgroups where applicable.
The requirements are laid out in the Health Canada publication entitled “Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods”. These guidelines were recently updated following public consultation.
The guidelines were revised to provide more detailed information about the pre-market notification procedure for novel foods in Canada, to provide more explicit guidance on the safety assessment data requirements for different types of novel foods, and to reflect advances in science and technology.
The revised guidelines are also consistent with guidance documents developed at the international level with respect to the assessment of genetically modified foods.
The Government of Canada believes that protecting the health of humans and of Canada's environment is the primary consideration of the regulatory system.
As I have mentioned before, only those foods demonstrated to be safe for human consumption are permitted into the market place.
This bill calls on the Minister of Health to maintain a list of all genetically modified foods, publish the list in the Canada Gazette, and post it on the Internet so anyone who requests it can see it.
This requirement is unnecessary as Health Canada already publishes a list of approved novel foods and decision documents which describe how regulatory authorities determined the safety of each new product and why certain conclusions were reached. It is all on the website.
Also available on Health Canada's website are decision summaries for each new product, the new novel foods regulations and guidelines, along with fact sheets and answers to frequently asked questions to aid in understanding this subject.
The Government of Canada is committed to sharing information with Canadians on how it regulates products of biotechnology.
In addition, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, have launched a project to post information about products that are under review on the CFIA website.
As part of this notices of submission project, the public is provided with an opportunity to provide input on scientific matters relevant to the safety assessment of submissions from certain product developers who have requested safety assessments of novel foods or plants with novel traits.
Scientific questions or information is forwarded to Health Canada and CFIA evaluators for consideration in the assessment.
The subject of the bill is food labelling.
In Canada food labelling policies at the federal level are a shared responsibility of Health Canada and CFIA under the Food and Drugs Act.
Health Canada's responsibilities for food labelling fall within the department's mandate for health and safety issues. With respect to genetically modified foods, as with all foods, Health Canada's role is to identify the information required on the label of that food to ensure safe use.
Health Canada would determine what type of information is needed on the label to inform Canadians about these changes in the food. For example, in cases where the final food product has been intentionally modified in composition, such as increasing the level of a particular acid in canola oil, a different common name will be required to describe the oil.
Special labelling is required if changes occurred in the food that the consumer needs to be informed of for health and safety reasons, such as major compositional or nutritional changes.
Once again, genetically modified foods cannot be sold in Canada unless it has been proven that they are safe to eat.
Special labelling would not be used in place of a thorough safety assessment.
Apart from safety concerns, there are important trade issues that need to be looked at. Mandatory labelling would be required for genetically modified foods where safety concerns such as allergies and compositional or nutritional changes are identified. The labelling would be required to alert consumers in any case and the statements could not be misleading.
Let me say that mandatory labelling would require that all parts of the production chain participate, regardless of the nature of the products or consumer preferences. This would have major trade implications and costs.