TORONTO — The organization that represents Canada's major grocery chains says it has full confidence in selling genetically engineered foods that have been approved by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The Canadian Press asked large retail chains such as Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Metro Inc., and Sobeys Inc., whether they plan to sell genetically modified produce like the Innate potato and Arctic apple and, if so, how they would be labelled. The companies referred questions to the Retail Council of Canada.
"We have confidence in the regulatory process and CFIA to ensure that (genetically engineered foods) are safe for consumption and only products that are safe for consumption are approved," said David Wilkes, senior vice-president of government relations and grocery division for the council.
"There is no requirement for labelling at this point in time, so the government does not indicate that (genetically engineered foods) would be labelled."
The U.S.-based J.R. Simplot Company said Monday that it was notified by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that it could sell its Innate potatoes — which purportedly are less likely to bruise or turn brown when cut — to consumers or for livestock consumption. The company says the potato has the same nutritional content as a conventional potato.
About a year ago, Health Canada approved a similar non-browning Arctic apple developed by Summerland, B.C.-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. The fruit is not available yet because of the length of time it takes to grow apple trees.
Innate potatoes, meanwhile, could potentially be planted in Canada and sold as early as later this year. They have been sold in the U.S. since last May under the White Russet brand. While the packaging boasts that the potatoes have "reduced bruising and fewer black spots," there is no disclosure about the product being genetically engineered.
Lucy Sharratt, spokeswoman for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), said it rankles some Canadians that special labelling isn't required.
"We're not necessarily speaking of safety issues when we're speaking of labelling. Consumers want labelling for all kinds of different reasons and in a democracy if people want information about what's in the food system I think it's incumbent on the government to respond," said Sharratt.
An online poll of 1,005 Canadians conducted in August 2015 by Ipsos Reid for CBAN found 88 per cent of respondents agreed the Canadian government should mandate labelling of genetically modified foods. When asked if they would purchase food that was labelled as genetically modified, 50 per cent said they would depending on the type of food, 25 per cent agreed with the statement "nothing can convince me to purchase genetically modified food," and 14 per cent said they would buy it "without hesitating." The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.
Many retailers give shoppers a choice to avoid genetically engineered fruits or vegetables by purchasing organic offerings, Wilkes said.
"You always find that range of options that are available and it really does come down to respecting the integrity of the process that the government undertakes and offering consumers the choice so that they can make the decisions that are best for their families."
A spokeswoman said Sobeys recognizes some customers prefer foods made with ingredients not derived through biotechnology and that they are seeing more suppliers highlighting products as non-GMO.
"We offer a full range of organic products that are clearly labelled organic including our private label Compliments Organic line of products that are certified organic and meet strict criteria that do not permit the use of ingredients derived through biotechnology," Barbara McCully, director of corporate communications, wrote in an email.
Family-owned grocery chain Longos, which has about 30 locations in the Toronto area and runs the online home-delivery service GroceryGateway.com, doesn't carry genetically modified produce and "has no plans" to sell them.
"We support and work with vendors who are a part of the Non-GMO Project," said spokeswoman Rosanne Longo in an email, referring to the non-profit organization that provides information to consumers on avoiding products that have been genetically modified.
In the U.S., some major corporations have announced they will start voluntarily labelling products that contain genetically modified ingredients to comply with a Vermont law, which comes into effect July 1.
Campbell Soup Co., General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., and Mars Inc., say the labelling changes will happen nationwide, not just in Vermont.
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By Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press