Canadians could soon be unknowingly eating gene-edited foods that have not been assessed for safety by Health Canada.
The federal agency, which is responsible for protecting people from potentially harmful foods, released guidance documents Wednesday that will allow biotechnology companies creating new crop varieties with certain genetic engineering techniques to sell their products without undergoing an independent safety assessment. They will also not be required to notify farmers and consumers that a food has been gene-edited.
The decision follows a lengthy consultation phase.
Until its decision last week, Health Canada required all genetically engineered foods to undergo a rigorous review to assess whether they were safe for human health and the environment. Under the new rules, only plants created using techniques that mix genetic information from two different species will be considered "novel" foods, a legal designation that requires them to undergo a safety review.
Plants that were created with genetic engineering but do not contain DNA from another organism will not be considered "novel." This means biotechnology companies — not Health Canada — will be responsible for assessing whether their products are safe and will be able to put them on the market without notifying consumers they are eating gene-edited products.
"Health Canada is asking Canadians to trust corporate safety determinations of these new genetically engineered foods. We don't think the assumption can be made that these gene-edited foods are without risk or that (biotechnology) companies are going to assess them as they should," said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of Canadian farm and environmental groups.
In a document provided by Health Canada to explain the new guidance, the ministry said it "has not found any verifiable scientific evidence that shows GM (genetically modified) foods are less safe than traditional varieties." Moreover, it said companies will be able to voluntarily let consumers and government officials know if they are selling a product produced using gene-editing techniques.
For Sharratt, that's not enough.
"There will be no way for the public to verify if that (voluntary) information is complete or that it is correct," she said. "It allows companies to do what they want with gene-edited foods and removes independent public regulation."