Sensational Science Or Science Fiction?

Dr. Marc Le Mageur
January 26, 2000
National Post

At a recent news conference, the Council of Canadians released a report by Dr. Ann Clark of the University of Guelph that was highly critical of Canada's food safety system. This report concluded that safety approvals for genetically modified foods in Canada were based on "unfounded assumptions and inadequate research."

When a scientist raises serious doubts in a public forum about an issue as important as food safety, Canadians have a right to expect the research she used to draw those conclusions to be based on solid scientific evidence. Unfortunately, in this case, it was not. Conclusions were based on an analysis of decision summaries found on Health Canada's Web site. These decision summaries provide general information on products that have undergone a safety assessment by Health Canada, not a detailed account of the scientific assessment itself. The assessment is conducted according to Health Canada's Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods (available at: These guidelines describe the details of the scientific evidence which cover nutrition, chemistry, molecular biology, and toxicology that we consider for such products. If Dr. Clark had examined the guidelines on the data and research required for the approval of novel foods, she would have understood how stringent those rules actually are.

Canada's Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods are based on scientific principles developed through international consultation with experts from agencies such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The approach used in Canada is also followed by regulatory agencies in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States.

Dr. Clark's report incorrectly states that "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 on actual testing." This is not true.

All genetically modified foods approved for sale in Canada undergo a rigorous and thorough process of testing, analysis and assessment to ensure that they are wholesome, nutritious and, above all, safe to eat.

Food products are evaluated against the best scientific information available worldwide. The data submitted undergoes intensive review and analysis by teams of acknowledged scientific experts in the areas of nutrition, molecular biology, chemistry, environmental science and toxicology.

The safety assessment involves careful consideration of how the food was modified down to the molecular level, determining how the food was developed, how its composition and nutritional quality compare with non-modified counterpart foods, and what potential the food has for being toxic or to cause allergic reactions. The approach used to assess the toxicity and allergenicity of foods is internationally recognized and endorsed.

New food products are also subjected to years of field trials and environmental risk assessments by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) before permission is granted for them to be grown by farmers and brought to market. If Health Canada and the CFIA had any concerns regarding the safety of these products, they would not be approved.

Canada has a food safety process that is widely recognized as one of the best in the world. In fact, we have recently announced the establishment of an independent expert panel to help assess our future scientific requirements to meet the growing complexity of food biotechnology so that Canada's food regulatory system remains at the leading edge of these developments.

Dr. Marc Le Mageur is director general of the foods directorate, Health Protection Branch, Health Canada.

Return to the home page of Better Foods