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TITLE:  Ottawa changes mind on GM food report findings
        Health officials to act on denounced study
SOURCE: The Toronto Star, Canada, by Peter Calamai
DATE:   August 23, 2001

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Ottawa changes mind on GM food report findings
Health officials to act on denounced study

OTTAWA - The federal government has quietly changed its tune about a 
controversial scientific report that said Canadians aren't adequately 
protected from the risks of genetically modified foods and other biotech 
products. Health Canada officials had denounced the report's key finding, 
which said the main concept underlying federal rules on modified products 
was "scientifically unjustifiable." Yet over the past six months senior 
officials from Health Canada and two other federal departments have drawn 
up a plan to implement many of the more than 50 recommendations on 
tightening regulations on GM foods. The recommendations came from a panel 
appointed by the Royal Society of Canada, the nation's elite science 

The government's apparent about-face is a blow to the report's critics, who 
will get a further setback next month when the report is reprinted in the 
scientific, peer-reviewed Journal Of Toxicology. Such an action is reserved 
for serious scholarly work. Yet the controversy set off by the February 
report is far from over, especially since Canada is the third-largest 
producer of genetically-modified crops in the world.

About 40 modified types of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, oilseed and 
other plants have already been approved by the federal government, with 
minimal publicity. Only last week, a study for the Canadian General 
Standards Board proposed that Canadian companies should be allowed to claim 
their food was GM-free even if products contain as much as 5 per cent 
genetically-modified material. That's five times the European standard.

As well, a new study on the safety of modified foods is to be published 
today by the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, whose members are 
appointed by Ottawa. This report is expected to take issue with some of the 
Royal Society's most criticized findings. "The Royal Society report 
contains numerous excellent recommendations. At the same time there were 
numerous omissions," said Doug Powell, a University of Guelph food safety 
expert who was on the committee that wrote the new study.

But the co-chairs of the Royal Society's expert panel said in interviews 
that their concerns were "seriously addressed" in a recent draft version of 
a federal action plan. "They've changed their tune. At first they suggested 
we just didn't understand the regulatory system," said co-chair Conrad 
Brunk, an ethics expert from the University of Waterloo. "Now they're 
admitting they've got problems and they have to take our report seriously." 
The other co-chair, University of British Columbia biotechnology researcher 
Brian Ellis, said panel members pointed out numerous shortcomings in the 
proposed plan. "There was a lot of bureaucratese, a fair amount of 
meaningless hand waving," Ellis said.

Both men said the controversial central finding of the Royal Society report 
has been strengthened by new scientific evidence. The report criticized 
federal regulators for regularly exempting genetically modified plants from 
a full safety assessment if they appeared to be no different than ones 
produced by traditional cross-breeding techniques.

The government's confidence in this "substantial equivalence" approach was 
not scientifically justified, the panel said. The Royal Society pointed to 
research published in Nature magazine in 1999, which said a GM plant was 20 
times more likely to pollinate other plants than naturally occurring mutant 
plants with the identical genetic make-up to the GM plant. This "unexpected 
and unexplained" result has since been duplicated by the same researchers 
at the University of Chicago, Ellis said.


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