Mr. Ian Murray (Lanark—Carleton, Lib.)
Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to Motion No. 230. The motion of the hon. member for Louis-Hébert has two parts. The first would make labelling of genetically modified products compulsory. The motion also calls for the government to carry out “exhaustive studies on the long term effects of genetically modified foods”.
Let me begin by saying that the Government of Canada's commitment is always to safety first. The well-being of Canadians, animals and our environment is our highest priority. Canada has an enviable reputation around the world for the safety of its food and the rigour of its food inspection system. Canadians rightly trust the regulatory system which has been vigilant in ensuring that our high standards are maintained.
On the question of labelling of foods, our federal legislation calls for Health Canada to set the requirements for mandatory labelling. The data requirements for the safety assessments of all foods are established by Health Canada, which also conducts premarket reviews of new foods including those derived through biotechnology. Every such food goes through a stringent review process before being allowed on the market.
The role of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, is to carry out inspection and enforcement activities relative to the food safety standards set by Health Canada. The CFIA is also responsible for the environmental safety assessment of a number of agricultural products such as plants, animal feed and veterinary vaccines including those derived through biotechnology.
I remind everyone that current labelling regulations in Canada require that all food products, including those developed through biotechnology, be labelled where a potential human health or safety issue has been identified, or if foods have been changed in composition or nutrition.
Labelling decisions are made by Health Canada and are based on the results of its food safety evaluations. I am sure the hon. member would agree any authority for labelling must be based upon science.
Let me address the first part of the motion before us by reminding the House that several initiatives are now already in place to study the question of how and when to label a genetically modified food. The government believes that all food labelling must be credible, meaningful and enforceable. We are actively engaged in consulting with Canadians to score how labelling can best serve the public.
We have strongly encouraged the establishment of a Canadian standard for the labelling of foods derived through biotechnology. This standard will include provisions for definitions, labels, claims and advertising, and compliance measures.
The Canadian General Standards Board, under the sponsorship of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, is in the process of developing the standards through open and inclusive consultation. Representatives and individuals from a broad range of Canadian interests have formed a committee to work on the standard, which is expected to be complete within the next six to twelve months. My hon. colleagues should be aware that by endorsing such a thorough process to develop a labelling standard Canada is indeed a leader worldwide.
I would also like to bring to the attention of the House that the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has already begun its series of hearings on the labelling of genetically modified foods. Canada is also assuming a leadership role in the development of international standards governing how and when genetically modified foods are labelled.
Canada chairs the Codex Alimentarius committee on food labelling, otherwise known as the CCFL for good reason. At the recent Codex meeting in Ottawa, Canada was recognized for its success in chairing the CCFL working group that drafted key options and recommendations for the labelling of biotechnologically derived foods. Once again Canada has been tasked with leading the group that this year will look at which of these options can be turned into Codex guidelines and then be implemented.
It is clear that work is under way to address the information needs of Canadians on the issue of labelling. We believe that Canadians want labels that are meaningful. It is the goal of the government to ensure that information provided to Canadians enables them to make informed choices. I reiterate that the House should not support Motion No. 230 on the basis of the first part of the motion on labelling.
I will now address the second part of the hon member's motion which recommends that exhaustive studies be carried out on the long term effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment. The safety assessment of conventional products and of products derived from biotechnology are both subject to stringent health and safety requirements under Canada's food and safety system. I re-emphasize that food safety and consumer protection are priorities for the Government of Canada. We are strongly committed to the safety of Canadians, animals and our environment.
Canada has a strong reputation as a producer of foods that are consistently safe, clean and of high quality. We have built that reputation by putting very rigorous regulatory systems in place. Our approval systems are science based and transparent. The decision of the government to accept or reject a product is based on sound science and fact. Our regulators include experts in nutrition, molecular biology, chemistry, toxicology and environmental science, to name just a few.
There have been recent studies calling into question the safety of biotechnology derived products. We hear a lot of talk about junk science. Canadian regulators do not accept junk science, poor science or half science when evaluating products of biotechnology. The regulatory system assesses products on a case by case basis. The research and safety required for evaluation directly addresses the potential risks of the product to human health and the environment. If there is any question as to the safety of these products they are not approved. The government continually reviews the effectiveness of its approaches.
The Government of Canada takes pride in advocating our science based approach around the world. We rely on the need for scientific research to settle questions related to long term health, safety and environmental issues. We are committed to a regulatory system that meets the highest standards of scientific rigour. This commitment is reflected in the establishment of two important groups, an expert panel and an advisory committee.
The Royal Society of Canada has appointed an expert panel to examine future scientific developments in food biotechnology and to provide advice to the federal government accordingly. This forward thinking body will advise Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada on the science capacity that the federal government will need to maintain the safety of new foods being derived through biotechnology in the 21st century.
The Royal Society of Canada named its expert panel this past February. In examining the leading edge of this technology the panel will recommend what new research, policies and regulatory capacity will be needed to ensure the Canadian standards of safety remain as stringent for the next generation of biotechnology derived foods as they are today.
A number of challenges and opportunities are associated with biotechnology that require detailed consideration and public discussion. Food biotechnology presents Canadians with challenges but also unprecedented opportunities.
The recently formed Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee or CBAC will bring stakeholders and interested parties together to advise the government to raise public awareness and to engage Canadians in an open and transparent dialogue on biotechnology issues. Canadians want to take part in the dialogue on food biotechnology. The CBAC will actively create opportunities for Canadians to participate in its activities and discussions. This will include an interactive website for interested Canadians to review, consult and provide input into this topic among many.
The work of the expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada will contribute to a balanced and consultative process where all questions and concerns can be thoroughly considered. The government looks forward to the contributions the expert panel and CBAC will make in furthering the dialogue on biotechnology issues.
I assure the hon. member for Louis-Hébert that the government will continue to undertake the necessary steps to ensure the health of Canadians, animals and our environment. I would add that the assessment of any genetically modified plant or crop is rigorous and comprehensive. It requires significant scientific data to be provided and evaluated.
Regulation through sound science is an essential step in the continued safe production of biotechnology derived foods. The 2000 federal budget confirms this priority in Canada's regulatory system. The $90 million investment in the regulatory system for biotechnology products will help Canada, the CFIA and other regulatory departments to continue to enhance and evolve their safety first regulatory approach to keep pace with the next generation of scientific discoveries.
This increased investment illustrates the continued dedication of the Government of Canada to supporting the regulatory system for the benefit of all Canadians.
We can take great pride in the steps the government has taken. We should remember that Canada was the first country in the world to actively engage a broad range of stakeholders in this issue. These initiatives have become the model for other countries.
Just last week, on June 5, the United Kingdom announced the establishment of its Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission which will look at developments in biotechnology. This commission has a mandate that was decidedly similar to that of the CBAC.
We have initiatives under way to ensure that Canada is well positioned for the future. The Canadian public is already strongly engaged on the issue of genetically modified foods. The government is adopting a balanced and consultative approach to the labelling of these foods and we are letting Canadians know that our top priority is health, safety and the environment. We have incorporated these values into our regulatory system.
For these reasons I urge my colleagues to vote against Motion No. 230.
Topic: Private Members' Business
Subtopic: Labelling Of Genetically Modified Foods