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Labelling of Genetically Engineered Foods in Canada

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) carry joint responsibility for federal food labelling policies in Canada under the Food and Drugs Act.

Health Canada is responsible for setting food labelling policies with respect to health and safety matters (i.e. nutritional content, special dietary needs etc.). This applies to all foods, including foods that have been derived through genetic engineering. CFIA is responsible for the development of non-health and safety food labelling regulations and policies.

The CFIA sets standards for Canadian food labels so that they will be truthful and not misleading. These standards help consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat.

There have been three major consultations since 1993 in Canada on the labelling of novel foods derived from genetic engineering. Based on these consultations, a set of guidelines were developed. They reflect a general consensus to:

  • require mandatory labelling if there is a health or safety concern, i.e. from allergens or a significant nutrient or compositional change (these decisions will be made by Health Canada)
  • ensure labelling is understandable, truthful and not misleading
  • permit voluntary positive labelling on the condition that the claim is not misleading or deceptive and the claim itself is factual
  • permit voluntary negative labelling on the condition that the claim is not misleading or deceptive and the claim itself is factual.

These principles are consistent with policy for all foods under the Food and Drugs Act.

While mandatory labelling will be required when genetically engineered products have a significant health, safety or compositional change the government recognizes the consumer's desire for more non-safety related information. Consumer choice can already be accommodated through Canadian legislation via voluntary labelling by food manufacturers.

To facilitate the use of such voluntary labelling, the Canadian government supported the development of a national standard for the voluntary labelling of foods derived from biotechnology. This process was sponsored by the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, under the guidance of the Canadian General Standards Board.

Voluntary Labelling of Foods

On April 15, 2004 the Government of Canada announced the official adoption by the Standards Council of Canada, of the Standard for Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering, as a National Standard of Canada. This means that consumers could start to see more labels on some food ingredients and food items indicating whether or not they are a product of genetic engineering.

Adoption of the voluntary standard is the result of a thorough development and approval process - via a multi-stakeholder committee - facilitated by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) and started in 1999. The process was reviewed by the Standards Council of Canada, the body that administers Canada's National Standards System.

National Standard

International

Internationally, there is a wide range of views on the labelling of genetically engineered foods. Canada is a member of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international standards setting body for food. Codex standards have been recognized by the World Trade Organization as a basis for trade agreements, and as such are becoming increasingly important for countries wishing to trade internationally. Through the Codex Committee on  Food Labelling which is chaired by Canada, Codex is developing guidelines for the labelling of foods derived from biotechnology. Clearly the development of our national guidelines on needs to take into account the development of standards at the international level.

Canada's trading partners, including the United States, support labelling on a case-by-case basis in instances of related to health, safety or compositional change.