Mr. Speaker, first of all, I want to thank the hon. member for Sherbrooke for calling the attention of the House to this very important issue, and I thank him for the work he put into his bill.
I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say that Canadians are informed consumers and it is important that they remain so. This includes having information on food labels when there are health risks and, equally, not having potentially confusing label information when health risks do not exist.
There are more than 105 million meals prepared and consumed every day in Canada. Canadians deserve to be able to trust the food they eat. We can all agree on this. However, where some may disagree is on whether a mandatory labelling declaration of “genetically modified” or “GM ”should apply to certain food.
Our government believes that Bill C-291, an act to amend the Food and Drugs Act, genetically modified food, is not the way to go. The bill does not align with the government's role to improve the health and safety of all Canadians and to better protect consumers from fraudulent practices.
I studied law. I see things through the eyes of a lawyer, which involves conducting a thorough analysis before making a decision. I will then present the information that is pertinent to this debate.
What does “genetically modified” mean? First, genetically modified food is not merely food that has been genetically engineered. Genetically modified food is simply food derived from an organism that has had modifications made to some of its genetic traits.
It can involve using chemicals or radiation to alter the genetic makeup of an organism's cells in a process called mutagenesis used, for example, to develop varieties of Canada's world-renowned canola. It can also involve joining DNA from two different species to produce new genetic combinations that are of use in agriculture, such as those used to develop Canada's groundbreaking, non-browning Arctic apple.
All food is regulated by Health Canada, which is responsible for establishing standards for the safety and nutritional quality of all food sold in Canada, and by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, which enforces those standards. This includes GM food.
Once again, Canadians' health and safety is our priority, and we have a rigorous scientific review process to ensure that products are safe for humans, livestock, and the environment. It usually takes seven to ten years for a company to compile enough data from its research, development, and testing on a genetically modified food to be able to submit a request for pre-market approval to the Government of Canada.
The company must provide Health Canada with detailed information describing exactly how the product was developed. The information is then reviewed by Health Canada scientists who specialize in areas such as molecular biology, toxicology, chemistry, food science, and microbiology.
GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada are as safe and nutritious as their non-GM counterparts.
I also mentioned livestock. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the CFIA, evaluates and regulates all feed ingredients, including those derived from GM organisms, in the same manner that Health Canada assesses food for human consumption. Any feed ingredient that is new or has been modified such that it differs significantly from a conventional ingredient is required to undergo a pre-market assessment and approval before being allowed into the Canadian marketplace.
We use the term “novel” to define products with traits that were not previously available for sale in Canada, such as those products produced through genetic engineering. For example, some corn feed grown in Canada has been genetically modified to survive drought conditions. The CFIA works closely with Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to thoroughly assess that GM products are safe for food, feed, and the environment.
Let us talk about labelling, which is at stake here. Health Canada requires mandatory labelling for food products where clear, scientifically established health risks or significant changes to the nutritional qualities of the food have been identified and can be mitigated through labelling. For example, if there is an allergen present in food, it must be labelled to alert consumers. The rigorous scientific reviews conducted have shown us that GM foods approved for the Canadian market do not pose a health risk.
What is more, Canada already has a national standard for the labelling of genetically modified foods. This standard can be used when companies choose to make claims. The standard was developed following broad consultation with the industry and the public. The standard for the voluntary labelling and advertising of foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering was first adopted by the Standards Council of Canada in April 2004. This standard guides food manufactures that choose to make claims regarding genetically modified foods so that they meet the labelling requirements set out in the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.
Products can be voluntarily labelled based on the national standard provided conditions are met and the claim is understandable, informative, accurate, and not misleading. The CFIA is responsible for enforcing these labelling requirements. The decision of whether or not to proceed with voluntary labelling rests with the company.
I mentioned earlier how our laws need to reflect the sound science that we use for decision-making in Canada. Given that science supports genetically modified foods as being as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts, and the fact that voluntary labelling measures are already in place, the government will not be supporting Bill C-291. Having said that, the Government of Canada will closely monitor developments on this particular file south of the border. Since the U.S. and Canada have traditionally adopted a similar voluntary approach, we are closely following the development of the mandatory disclosure rule in the United States, and will participate in any public consultation process. Once the details of the U.S. government's direction on this issue are better understood, the Government of Canada will be better positioned to assess whether changes should be considered to better align with the new U.S. approach.
In addition, the CFIA and Health Canada are consulting with Canadians on food labelling, including discussions on a new approach for claims made on food labels. The Canadian government agrees with the need for transparency in the regulatory system, and is committed to providing Canadians with useful and timely information.
Ensuring the safety, quality, and the integrity of Canada's food supply is a top priority for our government. Canada has one of the safest, most affordable, and most abundant food supplies in the world. That is due in no small part to our science-based regulatory system.
In closing, I would like to once again thank the member for Sherbrooke for raising this issue in the House and drawing members' attention to it, even though the government does not support this bill. I wish him all the best.