Earlier this month, the Codex Alimentarius Commission
("Codex") adopted guidelines allowing the labelling of
genetically modified ("GM") food products at its annual
Codex summit in Geneva, Switzerland. However, this recent
development may not result in sweeping changes for Canadians. While
it may indirectly affect Canadian food producers who export GM food
products to other countries, the labelling of such food products in
Canada is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.
The Codex was created in 1963 by the World Health Organization
("WHO") and the Food and Agriculture Organization
("FAO") to develop food standards, guidelines and related
texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food
Standards Program. The main purposes of this program are protecting
the health of consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the
food trade, and promoting coordination of all food standards work
undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental
organizations. Therefore, the Codex has a sometimes contradictory
mandate to protect the health of consumers while also facilitating
In 1993, the Codex Committee on Food Labelling
("CCFL") began work on developing labelling guidelines
for GM food products. However, several countries strongly opposed
these guidelines. The United States was one of the strongest
opponents of labelling for GM food products and was supported by
several other countries, including Canada.
After eighteen years of disagreement, the CCFL finally adopted
labelling guidelines for GM food products at its 39th session held
in Quebec City, from May 9-13, 2011. The United States, Canada,
Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica and Australia had blocked earlier
proposals for mandatory GM labelling but ultimately agreed to a
much weaker version, which permitted the voluntary adoption of GM
food product labelling. As stated above, these GM Guidelines were
formally adopted at the annual Codex summit in Geneva, Switzerland,
in July 2011.
These guidelines were referred to as the Proposed Draft
Compilation of Codex Texts Relevant to Labelling of Foods Derived
from Modern Biotechnology (the "GM Guidelines"). A
copy of the CCFL report adopting the GM Guidelines is available in
Spanish on the Codex website.
The GM Guidelines do not specifically endorse the labelling of
GM food products but this can be implied from the language. For
example, the GM Guidelines refer to the following
Different approaches regarding labelling of foods derived from
modern biotechnology are used. Any approach implemented by Codex
members should be consistent with already adopted Codex provisions.
This document is not intended to suggest or imply that foods
derived from modern biotechnology are necessarily different from
other foods simply due to their method of production.
Clearly, the GM Guidelines suggest that countries may implement
one of the many different approaches regarding the labelling of GM
food products, provided that they are consistent with already
adopted Codex provisions.
18. Risk managers should take into account the uncertainties
identified in the risk assessment and implement appropriate
measures to manage these uncertainties.
19. Risk management measures may include, as appropriate, food
labelling conditions for marketing approvals and post-market
Therefore, countries should be able to implement GM labelling
requirements for the purposes of risk management.
As stated above, the GM Guidelines are considered voluntary so
countries such as the United States and Canada are unlikely to
adopt mandatory labelling requirements. Currently, Health Canada
requires GM food products to be evaluated for food safety but does
not require them to be labelled in a manner that discloses its
genetically modified nature.
The most significant benefit of the GM Guidelines will be its
expected effect on World Trade Organization ("WTO") trade
disputes. The WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures
(the "SPS Agreement") states that "to harmonize
sanitary and phytosanitary measures on as wide a basis as possible,
Members shall base their sanitary or phytosanitary measures on
international standards, guidelines or recommendations". The
SPS Agreement names the Codex as the relevant standard-setting
organization for food safety.
As a result, member countries who choose to adopt mandatory GM
labelling requirements should avoid any WTO challenge based on the
claim that such requirements restrict international trade.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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