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Forever in food genes

Health Canada says GM foods safe; recommends more studies, transparency

With a U.S. company cloning human embryos, the ethical debate over genetically modified foods seems somewhat trivial, yet you would have expected a little more fanfare when Health Canada released their report on GM foods.

It’s always suspicious when the government releases a major document like this on a Friday afternoon, after the principals involved in the study have left for the weekend. But then supporters of GM foods have never been popular.

Back in February, the Royal Society Expert Scientific Panel released a Report on the Future of Food Biotechnology, asking the government to approve GM foods.

"Under the Food and Drugs Act, health Canada conducts a thorough safety assessment of each new product before it can be sold in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) also has responsibility for the regulation of products derived from biotechnology including plants, animal feeds and animal feed ingredients, fertilizers and veterinary biologics."

The Royal Society also recommended that "Environment Canada and Health Canada conduct risk assessment of new substances including biotechnology products, to determine if there are adverse effects to the environment or human health, prior to their import into or manufacture in Canada."

For example, rather than view a GM tomato as just another tomato, the Royal Society recommends treating it as a different species that requires a separate approval process.

Health Canada, however, rejected the Royal Society’s recommendation in their Nov. 23 report, forgettably titled "Action Plan of the Government of Canada in Response to the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel Report – Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada"

According to Health Canada, "substantial equivalence" is an acceptable safety standard when comparing one food to another. In other words, if it walks, talks, and swims like a duck then it’s still mostly a duck – even though it may have been genetically modified to lay eggs like a chicken.

This may seem like an extreme and ridiculous example, but keep in mind that one controversial GM product on the market is a tomato that has been modified with genes from an Atlantic flounder in order to make it more resistant to the cold.

Before a GM food is allowed to go to market, scientists will examine the genetic processes that were used to create that food, but will compare the end product, or novel food, with its unmodified counterpart.

The Royal Society also asked Health Canada to look into the science used to develop, monitor and enforce actions against GM products, and to see if any new policies, guidelines or regulations are required to protect human health, animal health and environmental health.

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