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3-Food: Canadian Government refutes GE food study of Royal Society of Canada

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TITLE:  Biotech food study refuted by Ottawa Health
        Canada attacks criticisms of expert panel
SOURCE: The Toronto Star, Canada, by Peter Calamai
DATE:   November 24, 2001

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Biotech food study refuted by Ottawa Health
Canada attacks criticisms of expert panel

OTTAWA - The federal government yesterday 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 

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. 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

The scientist in charge of expert panels for the Royal Society, biochemist 
Geoff Flynn of Queen's University, said he was not informed the government 
would be responding. The panel gave its report to health officials before 
public release. The late timing and minimal notice also run counter to the 
government's pledge of more openness in GM matters, said Flynn. "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 claimed 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 

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 

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. Conrad Brunch, a philosophy professor at the 
University of Waterloo and Brian Ellis, a plant scientist from the 
University of British Columbia, chaired the Royal Society's expert panel.


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