Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods: The Phantom Risks of “Frankenfood” [Part I of II]

Posted By Maryam Sabour

In 2011, a private members’ bill was introduced that would have amended the Canadian Food and Drugs Act. The amendments included mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods and would have held the Minister of Health responsible for publishing a list of all foods that have genetically modified components. This bill died with much controversy over these so-called “frankenfoods”.

GM foods first hit the Canadian market in 1994, and today about “70% of all the items in grocery stores that are packaged, bottled or frozen have some GM ingredients.” Non-governmental organizations promote statistics such as “80% of Canadians want labeling of GM foods,” but this phrasing begs the question of whether the average Canadian knows what GM means and understands the associated risks.

Labeling legislation exists to ensure that consumers have the necessary information readily available to assess the risk for themselves; thus, lawmakers must consider whether GM foods present enough risk to mandate a label for this information. I argue that the Canadian government should not implement regulation for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. In Part I of this two-part blog series, I analyse the purpose and scope of labeling in Canadian legislation. In Part II, I conduct a risk assessment on a consumer level, emphasizing the effects of consumer skepticism and the public’s perception of risk versus actual risk. I will then analyze the risk on a societal level to illustrate the reasons why the precautionary principle proves an ineffective approach in consideration of the social and economic consequences mandatory labeling of GM foods would entail.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary Food Labeling: Scope and Purpose

Labeling is the primary means of communication between producers and consumers”; it helps consumers make informed decisions when selecting one product over another. For the purposes of my argument, I will divide labeling into two categories: mandatory and voluntary (or social). Mandatory labeling is used to either mitigate the risk incurred from using products or to preclude misrepresentations about products.[1] Conversely, social labeling makes voluntary positive claims about credence goods to promote a socio-economic, cultural or ecological trait associated with a process related to the good.[2] Social labeling includes environmental labels (e.g. rain forest friendly), social labels (e.g. no child labour), green labels (e.g. recyclable), and agriculture labels, under which “non-GM products” currently fall categorized as “no GMO”.[3] A change in regulations to require mandatory labeling for GM foods would presume a material and substantial risk associated with the consumption of GM foods. To date, however, no empirical data exists to substantiate this claim.

A mandatory label to distinguish GM foods from non-GM foods would not improve consumer protection beyond the precautionary protocols already in place. Under Canadian legislation, Health Canada is responsible for developing policies and standards related to the health and safety of labeling under the Act. Genetically modified foods are considered “novel foods” under the Food and Drugs Act Regulations and must follow stringent safety requirements. The safety requirements take an ex ante approach of risk assessment as outlined under Division 28 of Part B of the Food and Drugs Regulations (Novel Foods). Manufacturers and importers of GM food in Canada must submit data to Health Canada for a pre-market safety assessment. Only after rigorous assessment and approval will Health Canada class the food as safe for consumption. Labeling requirements are only necessary for special changes that consumers must know, such as major compositional or nutritional changes. As a result of the safety measures in place to screen products before they enter the market, no risks can be associated with GM food and there is no need to distinguish between GM and non-GM food. Labeling is therefore not required.

Not only are GM labels unnecessary given the safety precautions undertaken by Health Canada, but forcing companies to label foods containing GM components would actually contradict current legislation. Section 5 of the Food and Drugs Act states: “no person shall label….any food in a manner that is false, misleading…or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value…merit or safety”. Forcing companies to label foods as “genetically modified” would give an erroneous impression to consumers because it seems to warn rather than inform. The label would give consumers the impression that there is a risk associated with the consumption of the product, even though no such risk has been scientifically proven. Studies conducted so far have not provided evidence of health risks, and Health Canada’s official stance on GM foods is that they are safe for consumption.

In Part II, I will consider whether mandatory labeling regulations would in fact enhance consumer choice. As no empirical data has ever suggested that risks exist with consuming GM foods, creating associations with risk – by labeling, for instance – is misleading. A short contrast of the perceived risks against actual risks will emphasize the potential consequences of mandatory labeling for GM foods. A wider approach is also taken in evaluating the effects of labeling GM foods by considering the broader societal impacts and exploring the notion of the precautionary principle. Finally, a recommendation is made for reducing consumer skepticism and encouraging informed public perception.

[1] Stan Benda, GM food labels: is it the need to know or the right to know – label what and why? (PHD Thesis, Osgoode Hall Law School, 2009) [unpublished].

[2] Ibid at 354.

[3] Ibid at 355.

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