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Voluntary Labelling of Products of Genetic Engineering

Who is responsible for food labelling in Canada?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada (HC) carry joint responsibility for food labelling policies under the Food and Drugs Act. This applies to all foods, not only biotechnology-derived foods. While HC is responsible for setting food labelling policies regarding health and safety matters (e.g. nutritional content, special dietary needs etc.), the CFIA is responsible for non-health and safety labelling requirements and enforcement of all food labelling legislation.

Specifically, the CFIA is responsible for consumer protection against misrepresentation and marketplace deception with respect to food labelling, packaging and advertising and for prescribing basic food labelling and advertising requirements for all foods (e.g. listing of food ingredients and components, product claims, mandatory information and statements, etc).

Can foods be voluntarily labelled?

Current legislation prescribes what can be said on food labels so that consumers get essential information about nutrition, composition, and substances that may have safety implications for particular segments of the population. However, food products can voluntarily be labelled to highlight characteristics of interest to consumers-as long as the information is truthful and not misleading. For example, improvements (e.g. new flavours) can be highlighted as long as the label claim implies that the food has been changed and clearly explains how.

Codex has no treaty obligations-commitments are voluntary. However, due to the World Trade Organization's recognition of Codex standards as a basis for trade agreements, standards approved under the CCFL have taken on increased significance. Also, decisions are reached by consensus, hence members reach substantial agreement before a standard is adopted.

Why is voluntary labelling important in Canada?

There has been extensive dialogue about labelling of biotechnology-derived foods, such as:

  • National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study, expert reports by the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC)
  • international discussion of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling
  • stakeholder input into the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) voluntary labelling standard and public discussion from the comment period during development of the CGSB voluntary labelling standard

What is the National Standard for Voluntary Labelling of Products of Genetic Engineering?

In 1999, the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD) asked the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) to assist in developing a national standard for voluntary labelling of foods and food ingredients that are, or are not, products of genetic engineering. The CGSB, an accredited standards development organization within Public Works and Government Services Canada, was responsible for the development of the standard.

How was it developed?

The CGSB established a multi-stakeholder committee to undertake this consensus-driven process. Committee members reviewed and commented on successive drafts of the standard to ensure all views were addressed before proceeding to the next draft. Once a final draft was complete, a vote determined if consensus had been reached. If so, the standard proceeded to final approval; if not, members met again to develop a revised draft for further voting.

What does the National Standard involve?

Although additional aspects may be identified by the committee, the National Standard provides guidelines for:

  • model voluntary label declarations that are understandable and not misleading
  • positive and negative claims (e.g. "products of genetic engineering" or "not products of genetic engineering")
  • labelling for single and multi-ingredient foods

Does this apply to biotechnology- derived foods?

Yes. A food manufacturer may choose to label its product as "a product of genetic engineering" or "not a product of genetic engineering." In permitting such labelling, the Government is recognizing the consumer's desire for more information that is not related to the safety of the product. However, where a product or its ingredients may pose a significant risk to health or safety or where there has been a compositional change in the product, the Government has the authority to require labelling under the Foods and Drugs Act.