How Safe is our Food Supply?

What is Biotechnology?

Simply put, biotechnology is the use of living organism, or their parts, to produce new products. When you eat bread or cheese, or use antibiotics, then you are ingesting something that was produced through biotechnology.

Biotechnology is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of tools and techniques, ranging from fermentation to plant and animal breeding, cell and tissue culture, antibiotic production and genetic engineering. Many traditional food-making processes depend on living organisms. Yeast is used to make bread rise. Bacteria is used to ‘age’ cheese. Natural processes of biotechnology, like fermentation, are harnessed to produce alcohol and some medicines. Antibiotics, for example, are manufactured from substances such as bacteria and fungi.

Today, scientists are refining these methods and introducing techniques never used before, but the new techniques are still considered – along with traditional methods – as ‘biotechnology’.

The traits of every organism are encoded in its genetic material, (DNA or RNA) which is organized into individual units called genes. Through this new kind of biotechnology, genetic modification (GM) is achieved by changing the code or organization of the genetic material that defines a characteristic of an organism. This included, but is not limited to, moving a gene or genes from one organism to another (this is commonly galled genetic engineering).

For example, crops have been bred with new characteristics, like resistance to insects, frost, or disease, using genetic modification. Some of these new crops may reduce the need for chemicals in agriculture. The ‘safety’ difference is that chemicals took years to get to market because of stringent controls over these substances, but biotechnology (specifically genetic modification) is not as tightly controlled as some processes necessary to approve medications and environmental chemicals. Many consumers and scientist feel there has not been enough research yet to support the safety of genetically modified foods. Of significant interest is that the Canadian government has a vested interest in the biotechnology industry with an estimated $400 million invested in its development.


What is a Novel Food?

Novel foods are defined as products that:

  • have never been used as a food: or
  • foods that result from a process that has not previously been used for food; or,
  • foods that have been modified by genetic engineering. This category of foods has been described as genetically modified foods (often referred to as GM foods, genetically engineered foods, or biotechnology-derived foods).


How many genetically modified food products are permitted in Canada?

Forty-two types of GM in crops have been approved by Health Canada for food use in Canada at this time. Crops approved so far include:

  • Corn, including strains resistant to corn borers and herbicides;
  • Canola, including strains resistant to herbicides;
  • Potato, including strains resistant to Colorado potato beetles;
  • Tomato, including strains that ripen slowly;
  • Squash;
  • Soybean;
  • Flax; and
  • Cottonseed oil.


Is there an example of food derived from biotechnology that was not given regulatory approval by the Canadian government?

Most companies will not submit an application, or will withdraw a submission, when they see that it will not meet the strict criteria outlined by Health Canada. For example, several years ago, research was conducted in order to improve the quality of soybean meal as an animal feed. This involved the transfer of genetic material coding for a storage protein from a Brazil nut to a soybean.

Since the Brazil nut is known to cause allergic reaction in a small number of sensitive individuals, laboratory tests using sera from Brazil nut-sensitive individuals were conducted in order to determine whether an allergenic protein had been transferred to the soybean. The results of the laboratory tests showed that the gene obtained from the Brazil nut likely encoded the major Brazil nut allergen and research on this product was discontinued.

The company did not officially apply for approval of this product, the product was never commercially developed, and soybeans containing a Brazil nut protein were never available on the market.


Which government departments are responsible for assessing the safety of foods derived from biotechnology?

Health Canada is responsible for assessing the human health safety of products derived through biotechnology including foods, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and pest control products. In the case of novel foods, each safety assessment considers the process used to develop the novel food, its characteristics compared to those of its traditional counterpart, its nutritional quality, the potential presence of any toxicants or anti-nutrients, and the potential allergenicity of any proteins introduced into the food.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) shares responsibility for the regulation of products derived from biotechnology including plants, animal feeds and animal feed ingredients, fertilizers, and veterinary biologics. For genetically modified crop plants, the CFIA assesses the potential risk of adverse environmental effects, authorizes and oversees import permits, confined trials, unconfined release, and variety registration.


Is there any scientific evidence to suggest that genetically modified foods are less safe that those foods found in nature or produced using conventional techniques?

Health Canada and the CFIA have been reviewing the safety of foods derived from genetic modification for the last five years. Forty-two foods have been approved. Any approved product must firs have been shown to be as safe as foods already on the market. However, in the greater scheme of things, five years is not a lot of time and more, longer-term, testing needs to be done.

Keep in mind, however, that with the amount of money the Canadian government has invested in this area, it has an interest in its success.


What is the government doing to address the issue of labelling of foods derived from biotechnology?

Health Canada and the CFIA share the responsibility for food labelling policies under the Food and Drugs Act. Health Canada’s responsibilities for food labelling falls within the Department’s mandate for health and safety issues. Mandatory labelling is required only for genetically modified foods where safety concerns such as allergenicity and compositional or nutritional changes are identified. In this situation, labelling will be required to alert consumers or susceptible groups in the population. Voluntary labelling of foods derived from biotechnology is permitted under current legislation as an option for food companies to meet marketplace demands.


The future of food derived from biotechnology

Canada now has an independent expert panel to examine future scientific developments in food biotechnology. The independent expert panel, operating at arm’s length from the federal government, also advises Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Environment Canada on the science capacity that the federal government will require to continue to ensure the safety of new food products being developed through biotechnology into the 21st century.

In September 1999, Health Minister Allan Rock said, “This blue ribbon scientific panel will be assembled and organized as an objective and independent review. It will be a pro-active, forward-thinking body that will assess the future scientific requirements of the regulatory system to meet the growing complexity of food biotechnology. It will be asked to make recommendations that will allow us to continue to protect human health, animal health and the environment in Canada for the future.” World-wide concerns include the potential ill effects from directly eating the foods, the ecological impact, and possible allergens imported into foods (but not labelled as such). When foods are genetically modified for antibiotic resistance, for example, the new gene is also antibiotic resistant, making any exposure to a pathogen also antibiotic resistant as well. Some scientists are concerned from an ecological standpoint with these crops since the genes that code for herbicide resistance may also spread to weeds. The main issue for consumers should be their right to choose to use these products, and the best way to do this is through clear, consistent mandatory labelling.

In the future for foods derived from biotechnology, two things are certain, further study is necessary to determine long-term safety of these products, and labelling of all genetically modified foods should be mandatory in Canada.


Some examples of Current Research in Genetic Modification

Currently, scientists in the US are working on embedding a vaccine into a food product to “ease administration” of the vaccine. In this particular case, the vaccine is to fight against the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), one of the most significant disease-causing agents of infancy and early childhood. Cherry tomatoes have been modified to contain the vaccine. Therefore, each subsequent crop of these tomatoes (or any other tomatoes involved in cross pollination) may contain the vaccine. Trails show good results in mice and tests on humans may start soon. Vaccination could be as simple as taking a bite of a tomato. No more needles.

In other research, scientists have altered E.coli bacteria to produce more potent versions of lycopene, an antioxidant believed to ward of certain cancers. More and more studies are showing that antioxidant vitamins combat the cell damage that leads to cancer, heart disease and other conditions. As a result, there is growing interest in packaging such antioxidant activity into pill form. Developing an efficient way to mass-produce synthetic versions of antioxidants like lycopene and lutein with biotechnology is a major step in the commercial process, and may soon result in having this genetically modified substance available in pill form.


Reactions to Biotechnology Around The World



Europe (Great Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Belgium) In Great Britain, groups are lobbying the major supermarket chains to ban or label genetically modified (GM) foods. Consumers are using caution with GM foods because of questionable claims by food producers regarding food safety (e.g. outbreak of mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BES_ caused by changes in animal feed processing). As in the case of BSE, it may take many years after food consumption for an illness or complication to develop. Major companies like Kellogg use GM-fee corn in Europe because of the public pressure in these countries. The European Union nations are looking at adopting a law thee would require stricter labelling and monitoring of GM foods.
Japan Laws are pending requiring the labelling of GM foods.
China GM cotton and tobacco are required by law to be labelled as GM seeds.
Australia/New Zealand Laws are pending requiring the labelling of GM foods. Tasmania (Australia) wants their island to be a GM-free state. Australia has a Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) that regulates research into GM.
Saudi Arabia Bans the import of GM foods.
Brazil Opposes GM crops.
Africa (Nigeria) Is demanding GM crops to help alleviate malnutrition and hunger. Claims groups opposing GM foods are alarmist and “misguided”. Officials here stat the agricultural biotechnology offers a way to stop the suffering – especially among children.
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental groups in Europe and North America Oppose the new seed varieties on the grounds they could have unintended human health and environmental affects.
The World Health Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Have determined that genetically modified crops are “safe and nutritious”.


Gail Attara and Mary Flesher, Clinical Dietitian
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 121 – September/October 2000