Truth in labelling – the right to know

Comments Off January 2, 2013 at 10:56 am by Gary Gnirss

The 2012 U.S. elections are now part of history. As too is California’s Proposition 37, which had it been successful would have obliged food labels in the state of California to identify that they are or contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms.

In the past five parliamentary sessions in Canada there have also been five private member bills introduced on the subject of labelling foods derived or containing ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Obviously the past four were not successful, as there would not have been a need for the fifth time up to bat on the matter. Bill C-257 is the current effort that more than likely will share the same fate as its predecessors and other private member bills, and lead us no doubt to the sixth bill in the next session of parliament.

California’s Proposition 37 and Canada’s Bill C-257 are both predicated on the consumer’s right to know. The details of the legislation would require any food that is or contains ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms to effectively provide wording in a form and manner that really looks like a warning. Warnings are an alert to something that is not safe. While it cannot be argued that consumers do not have a right to know, the issues are much more complex than they appear. Consumers should ultimately have the confidence that food is safe. The truth between “knowing” and “safety” is sometimes not so easy to see. The consequence of such legislation is that it would cause doubt about the safety of food.

In Canada, foods that are derived from organisms that have been genetically modified are captured as novel foods within the Food and Drug Regulations. Before such foods can be sold or advertised, a formal submission supporting the safety of the food must be provided to Health Canada, which in turn must provide a written notice accepting the food as safe for use in Canada. This notice from Health Canada is colloquially referred to as a letter of no objection. It is issued only after a successful safety review of the food. Such novel food notices, while not obliged to be formally acknowledged in Canada Gazette, are posted on Health Canada’s website.

There is also an effort underway now by Health Canada to provide even more transparency in this process and greater opportunity for input from interested parties. This is actually an excellent forum for anyone to participate in the discussions related to food safety. The process is science based, which is fundamentally the underpinning of the rationale for food safety-related policy and regulations. A novel food that cannot be proven to be safe would not be accepted by Health Canada, and thus may not be sold in Canada. Novel foods do not just include those derived from GMOs, but any other food that does not have a safe history of use as food.

So why would warning statements be necessary when Health Canada has determined that a novel food is safe? Proposed legislation like Bill C-257 would then seem to undermine the credibility of Health Canada. That would be truly an unfair consequence, as Health Canada is well respected in Canada and internationally for its rigorous and disciplined scientific approach to food safety. Food safety is driven by credible evidence-based science.

When laws and regulations are made they need to be purposeful, and certainly not contradictory. If regulations are used as an instrument to scare people about the safety of food, how can that be a right to know? It’s hard to make an informed decision under those circumstances. If the food is not safe, it should not be sold. Warnings about a food that is safe is not purposeful and is contradictory, and ultimately undermines consumer confidence in foods.

In looking such proposed legislation, the reasons for past failures may be that their intent does not address food safety. This is not to be dismissive of any information that might challenge food safety – good science is the result of looking at all relevant information. The campaign might, however, be better served if addressed in a forum that examines all evidence, such as the novel food process. The truth of the matter is that consumers should have the right to expect their food to be safe and to have confidence that their government works towards that end based on good and credible science.

Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at president@legalsuites.com