Biotech food study refuted by Ottawa
Health Canada attacks criticisms of expert panel
November 24, 2001
The Toronto Star/Canadian Press [via Agnet]
The federal government on Friday, according to these stories, struck back at an independent study that concluded Canadians weren't adequately protected from the risks of genetically modified foods.
The government's response claims that the study, released this year, "does not raise concerns about the safety of GM-foods currently in the marketplace."
Canada is the third-largest producer of genetically modified crops in the world. About two-thirds of the processed food sold in the country contains some genetically modified component, usually the oils.
The expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada in fact did raise concerns about the safety of these products, warning that the basis of existing federal regulation of biotech agricultural products was "scientifically unjustifiable."
The experts also said Health Canada approved GM-foods for public consumption on a "case-by-case, ad hoc" basis with no formal criteria.
These criticisms were immediately attacked by senior officials of Health Canada when the report was released in February. The top scientists on the expert panel simply didn't grasp how the regulatory system works, health officials said.
The stories say that a similar defence is made in the government's formal response to the report, which was posted on departmental Web sites around 5 p.m. after a perfunctory announcement 20 minutes earlier. The
response can be viewed at www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
The scientist in charge of expert panels for the Royal Society, biochemist Geoff Flynn of Queen's University, was cited as saying he was not informed the government would be responding and that the late timing and minimal notice also run counter to the government's pledge of more openness in GM matters, adding, "It's not only disappointing but also a bit unfair."
The expert panel report was commissioned by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada after they came under attack from public interest groups for promoting biotechnology rather than controlling it.
Health officials and the scientists have been feuding ever since the highly critical study was released Feb. 5.
The key controversy centres on the approach, which the panel says federal regulators have used so far to approve most biotech crops, known as "substantial equivalence."
The experts concluded that transgenic plants are being approved without a full-risk assessment simply if they appear the same as plants produced by conventional breeding techniques.
This lax approach exposes Canadians who consume GM foods to potential health risks, including allergic reactions and toxicity, the experts said.
In its response yesterday, the government once again was cited as claiming that "substantial equivalence" is not the basis for regulatory approval but only a guide.
However, the government concedes that the official regulatory documentation is sloppy in its use of "substantial equivalence."
The government also promises to "clarify" with individual departments the application of the precautionary principle, which the expert panel strongly endorsed. The principle says that it is better to be safe than sorry if there is scientific uncertainty about the risk of some new material or procedure.
Most of the 30-plus items in the government's action plan focus on internal mechanisms and regulatory details.
But eight promised actions are devoted to the need to be more open and increase public confidence. None of these would have precluded the end-of-week unheralded release of the official response.
In fact, the government's response is dated Nov. 21. One senior official predicted earlier this week that the report would be deliberately issued at the last possible moment.
Nadege Adam, a spokesperson for the Council of Canadians was quoted as calling Health Canada officials "jerks" after the department released Health Canada's long-awaited plan on genetically modified food late yesterday afternoon -- after bureaucrats had left their offices and on a day when the Commons was not sitting, further adding, "It sounds like a bunch of: 'We agree, we'll review, we'll update.' The plan isn't clear. We don't see anything concrete here."
The 31-page document details the government's response to recommendations on how genetically altered food should be regulated.
It consists mostly of commitments to review policy in response to recommendations made last February by a scientific panel. John Levatte, a spokesman at Agriculture Canada, was quoted as saying, "It's Health Canada's baby. That is a good question why they'd release it at five o'clock."