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Is Health Canada Doing Enough to Keep Our Food Healthy and Safe?

04/09/2015 12:23 EDT | Updated 06/09/2015 05:59 EDT
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On the morning of Wednesday, February 25 of this year, while the snow was blowing sideways at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa, I met with two of Health Canada's senior officials: Dr. William Yan, Director for Bureau of Nutritional Sciences and Luc Bourbonniere, Section Head for Novel Foods in the Evaluation Division. They were both very kind and patient and let me ask all the questions I had brought with me that day. Obviously, today's blog entry would be way too long if I copied and pasted all my notes from the meeting here, so I decided to make this the first of a series of blog entries about my meeting with Health Canada, which was arranged by our Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose.

(If you'd like to read my notes from the meeting, you can find them here.)

The first question I had for the Health Canada officials was if they did any of their own safety studies on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Dr. Yan confirmed they did not, and went on to say, "We review the data that is given to us by the company. It's up to them to demonstrate the safety."

Then I asked if Health Canada reviews internationally published studies, such as the one by the University of Sherbrooke that found Bt (insecticide used with GMO crops) in the blood of human fetuses and their mothers.

I was told that they do, but in the case of the Sherbrooke study, Bourbonniere said, "It didn't say the foods were not safe. It just said we may have detected something in the blood of pregnant women, but it didn't imply there was any safety issue."

Apparently, their toxicologist didn't agree with the techniques used and therefore couldn't draw any new conclusions or questions about GMOs. So they didn't change their opinion, and that was the end of it. Personally, if there was a study that said there was even a possibility of a widely used insecticide found in the blood of unborn fetuses, I'd be extremely concerned! I'd have lots of questions and want to see more tests done!

I wanted to know if the studies given to Health Canada for safety assessments were peer-reviewed. No surprise, the answer was no. Dr. Yan advised that "Some of the data is actually proprietary data. They invest millions of dollars to develop their crop, so they're not going to divulge it to anyone else to test the product."

Well, when it comes to assessing safety, wouldn't secrecy be a problem? Wouldn't you want someone who is unbiased to be the one who tests and reviews a product?

After my meeting with the Health Minister in November, 2014, I was under the impression that labelling GMOs was up to the scientists at Health Canada, but unfortunately when I asked them about it, I was told that it's not a health and safety issue; therefore it is not within their mandate.

So I asked, if it's not up to Health Canada, and it's not up to the Health Minister, then whose responsibility is it? Dr. Yan said "Non health and safety labelling is really under the jurisdiction of the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)." He went on to say, "I don't think you're going to see the CFIA have the mandate to tell everyone they have to label something GM or non-GM."

So it seems to me that nobody wants to take on the responsibility of making GMO labelling mandatory in this country. Over 60 countries around the world have this law already, and polls show that about 90 per cent of Canadians want this to happen.

What makes this even more interesting and frustrating is the answer Dr. Yan gave me when I asked him if he would like to know and choose the food that he's eating. He said "My personal opinion is yes. Freedom of choice is always good. But does Health Canada have the mandate to require mandatory GMO labelling? The answer is no."

The need for GMO labelling and Freedom of Choice has become more critical than ever in light of the recent report released by the World Health Organization stating that "The herbicide glyphosate and the insecticides malathion and diazinon were classified as probably carcinogenic to humans."

This is a pretty big deal considering the majority of GM crops are modified to withstand unlimited doses of Glyphosate! The main GM crops, corn, canola, soy and sugar beets, end up in 70 per cent of processed foods we eat!

This is the statement that Ambrose made during an interview with Global News last year: "If we had the evidence that this was unhealthy, Health Canada would act and impose mandatory labels. That's our job, to keep Canadians safe and healthy. But right now there is no scientific evidence that conclusively says that in any way genetically modified foods are unhealthy for Canadians."

She appears to be saying they want conclusive proof that GMOs are not safe, and until that evidence is in, GMOs can stay on the Canadian market without proper labels. But when the World Health Organization states that the most widely used herbicide used to make GMOs probably causes cancer for humans, isn't that proof enough? At least to label it?

Here's another thing I thought about: Shouldn't their approach be the exact opposite? Shouldn't they be looking for conclusive proof that GMOs are safe? I think that is a better way to look out for the health of Canadians. Why does something horrible have to happen first before simply putting a label on it?

Take Action:

1. Write to the Minister of Health and ask her to impose mandatory GMO labelling.

2. Ask your Member of Parliament to support Motion M-480 to label GMOs.

3. Take part in the National GM Inquiry 2015 where you can submit questions you'd like the answers to.

4. To learn more and/or support my non-profit organization visit Kids Right To Know

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