A seemingly innocuous pamphlet probably arrived in your mailbox this week, as it did in mine, titled Food Safety and You.
Produced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, its cover features a soft, crayon-drawn rendition of a wholesome-looking picnic: a tossed salad, bowl of fruit, glass of milk and a solid plate of char-broiled steak, string beans, baked spuds and ruby-red tomatoes. It recalls the colourful, government-produced charts that used to adorn my mother's refrigerator, detailing the four food groups with their recommended servings. Just good, politically neutral information.
This pamphlet, studded with several useful food-safety tips, appears to be along those lines. That it is, until one reads the section titled "How are new food products approved?"
It is worth quoting extensively.
"Over the years, scientists have been involved in developing new food technologies that could lead to improved food products," reads the pamphlet, without mentioning that these scientists work for some of the worst polluters on the planet, including Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical.
"These foods go through a rigorous and thorough review process before they can be introduced into the marketplace. The way the government of Canada assesses and regulates these goods is based on scientific principles that have been developed through consultations with experts around the world."
"Before any product derived from biotechnology can be marketed in Canada, the government of Canada requires that it undergo thorough laboratory and field testing. This includes testing in controlled, small-scale field trials to generate some of the data needed for health- and environmental-safety assessments. In every step of the way, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducts environmental-safety assessments for plants derived through biotechnology."
This all sounds great. If only it were true. In fact, according to Ann Clark, associate professor at the University of Guelph and an expert in crop production and physiology, the CFIA doesn't do any actual research into food safety at all. Reached in Wooster, Ohio, where she is on sabbatical, Clark calls the pamphlet "very carefully worded. The phrase that they 'conduct assessments' is probably true, but it's not research."
Research into the safety of genetically modified foods - when it is done at all - is provided by biotech corporations themselves, the parameters and methods of which vary widely, says Clark. In January, Clark published an analysis, titled "Food safety of GM crops in Canada: toxicity and allerginicity," that showed the CFIA has completely dropped the ball on studying the safety of GM foods.
"In sum," she wrote, "70 per cent of the currently available GM crops, including all of the canola and cotton crops approved for commerce in Canada, have not been subjected to any actual lab or animal-toxicity testing, either as refined oils for direct human consumption or indirectly as feedstuffs for livestock.
"Food-safety assessment is largely an assumptions-based process. Most or all of the conclusions of food safety for individual GM crops are based on inferences and assumptions, rather than actual testing. Evidence is needed to substantiate and validate these assumptions."
Hard to Review Data
Clark's analysis was conducted using data supplied on the Health Canada Web site. Actually reviewing the data supplied by industry is next to impossible, she notes. "The ministry neither encourages nor allows independent review of industry research," Clark explains. "It makes it very difficult for independent researchers like myself to review their data, so Canadians are obliged to entirely depend on the CFIA."
The CFIA is part of the federal Agriculture Department, which, Clark notes, labours under two incompatible goals: it is responsible for both regulation and promotion of the industry.
Says Clark, "I find that an unacceptable combination."
It's obvious the promotional role of the ministry now holds the upper hand. In addition to this food-safety pamphlet, the CFIA has contracted out for two advertising supplements, to appear this spring, in the consumer magazines Canadian Living and Coup de Pouce. The supplements will ostensibly contain "balanced, factual" information on GM foods.
As 200 Health Canada scientists warned in a letter to minister Allan Rock last fall, the government lacks the manpower to ensure food safety in Canada. The reliance on industry to police itself, meanwhile, is a disaster waiting to happen.
Spinners to the bone, the Liberals would rather spend taxpayers' millions on PR efforts to lull us into complacency rather than on actual flesh-and-blood scientists who could ensure GM foods are safe.
In response to growing fears the government isn't acting in the public interest, the Liberals turn to pollsters to probe Canadian attitudes (on that, more next week) while blithely assuring us that every food product on supermarket shelves has been properly tested. Don't believe the hype.
- Lyle Stewart is a Montreal writer. His E-mail is email@example.com
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Last Updated on 4/5/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook