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 and enforcement of all food labelling legislation. 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), in order to inform consumers of the allergen or change,
  • 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, and;
  • 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.

Mandatory labelling for foods, including genetically engineered foods, can be required by Health Canada where there are health or safety concerns that could be mitigated through labelling, or to highlight a significant nutritional or compositional change.

Voluntary labelling is permitted in order to provide consumers with information that is not related to the safety of the product. To facilitate the use of such voluntary labelling, the Canadian government supported the development of a national standard to provide guidance on the voluntary labelling of products of genetic engineering.

National Standard

The Standards Council of Canada officially adopted the Standard for Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering (CAN/CGSB-32.315-2004), as a National Standard of Canada in 2004. The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB), an accredited standards development organization within Public Works and Government Services Canada, was responsible for the development of the standard.

In 1999, the CGSB established a multi-stakeholder committee to undertake the development of the standard. Committee members included participants from federal departments and agencies (including the CFIA and Health Canada), consumer groups, food manufacturers, grocery distributors, provincial representatives and farm organizations. The development of standards is a consensus-driven process, and is reviewed by the Standards Council of Canada, the body that administers Canada's National Standards System.

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"), and;
  • labelling for single and multi-ingredient foods.

International

The topic of labelling products of biotechnology has received significant international consideration in the context of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international standards setting body for food, of which Canada is a member. Codex texts provide guidance for the labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology. Canada's current approach is consistent with this guidance.

Additional Resources