About novel and genetically-modified (GM) foods

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Novel food

Simply put, novel foods are food products that are new or changed compared to existing foods. We review novel foods for their safety before they can be sold in Canada.

A novel food is:

  • a substance, including a microorganism (a living thing so small you need a microscope to see it), that does not yet have a history of safe use as a food
  • a food that has been manufactured, prepared, preserved or packaged by a process that:
    • has not been previously used for that food, and
    • causes the food to undergo a major change
  • a food that comes from a plant, animal or microorganism that has been genetically modified so that the plant, animal or microorganism:
    • shows characteristics that it didn't before
    • doesn't show characteristics that it did before
    • has 1 or more characteristic that no longer falls within the expected range

Genetically-modified (GM) food

A genetically-modified (GM) food is a food that comes from an organism (plant, animal or microorganism) that has had 1 or more of its traits changed on purpose. Organisms can be modified by different processes, including:

  • traditional breeding techniques, like cross-breeding
  • modern biotechnology techniques, such as genetic engineering
  • gene editing
  • mutagenesis (a change in the genetic make-up of an organism caused by chemicals or radiation)

Genetic modification has been used to produce crops that are better at:

  • resisting disease
  • resisting pests that destroy crops
  • tolerating the herbicides used to kill weeds
  • delaying the ripening process to allow them to be transported long distances
  • surviving drought conditions where water is scarce.

The next generation of GM foods may have direct benefits for consumers, such as:

  • better taste
  • improved nutrition

The majority of GM foods approved for sale in Canada are from plants, along with a few produced using GM microorganisms. We approved the first GM animal, AquAdvantage salmon, for sale in 2016.

Health Canada's role in bringing novel foods to market

Health Canada assesses the safety of all novel foods proposed for sale or advertising in Canada.

Manufacturers are required to submit detailed scientific data for review by Health Canada before such foods can be authorized for sale.

A team of Health Canada scientists carries out the assessment. The team includes:

  • chemists
  • nutritionists
  • toxicologists
  • microbiologists
  • molecular biologists

The Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods Derived from Plants and Microorganisms outlines the specific criteria for the safety assessment of novel foods.
Health Canada also:

Guidelines and policies

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