OTTAWA, Ontario - The Canadian government has changed its thinking on labeling genetically modified foods. This follows the federal support of a project to develop a Canadian standard for the voluntary labeling of foods derived from biotechnology to be conducted by The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors (CCGD) and the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) of Ottawa.

Prior to the announcement, both industry and government were opposed to labeling genetically modified foods because they believed consumers would not buy them. Also, many genetically modified crops in Canada are mixed with conventional crops, making it difficult for food producers to tell whether ingredients are genetically modified.

Voluntary labeling by food companies already is an option to identify biotechnology products that do not require mandatory labeling, provided the label is true and not misleading and not in violation of other regulatory requirements. Without the appropriate standards, virtually no companies have chosen to act on this option. The CCGD/CGSB project is designed provide essential guidance for food companies and manufacturers about how to label their products.

According to the federal minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Lyle Vanclief, project funding will be through the department's Agri-Food Trade 2000 program (AFT200). This program, which provides up to 50 percent of the costs, is designed to assist the Canadian agri-food industry in undertaking a wide range of market development and trade-related activities.

The Canadian government said consumers have the right to access information as it relates to biotechnology and food. However, this is a complex issue and any labeling has to be meaningful to consumers, Vanclief said.

The voluntary labeling standard will be developed with participation from consumer groups, food companies, producers, interest groups and government, through the formation of a standards committee expected to meet next month.

The CGSB, an accredited standards development organization within Public Works and Government Services Canada, will manage the development of the standard on behalf of the CCGD.

The CCGD represents about 80 percent of major food retailers in Canada and is involved in public awareness and education activities for biotechnology. Initial studies, including a National Institute of Nutrition, Ottawa, study on voluntary labeling in April, indicated that consumers view labeling as important, but not as a panacea solution. The study also illustrated the need for greater public understanding of this issue. The provision of information to consumers on foods derived from biotechnology through means other than labeling, such as through the mass media, point-of-sale literature and advertising, also are seen as useful alternatives.

Under the Food and Drugs Act mandatory labeling must occur for all foods, including those derived from biotechnology, when nutritional changes are made to the product, or to alert consumers of possible health concerns such as the presence of food allergens. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency cooperate on matters related to food labeling.

The CGSB is an accredited standards organization in the national Standards System of Canada. Recently, it assisted the food industry in creating a certification policy for organic foods.