GM Foods and Their Regulation

In step with innovation: How GM foods are regulated

Like the computer and wireless communication, genetically modified food is the result of recent innovation.

Begun in the mid-1800s, the science of genetics gained significant momentum in the second half of the 20th century. The discovery of the DNA molecule in 1953, the advent of genetic engineering in the late 1970s and the mapping of the human genome in the 1990s drove the biotechnology boom and led to the genetic modification of organisms becoming a vital new research field.

What is genetically modified (GM) food? Essentially, a GM food is one derived from an organism that has had some of its heritable traits changed. This can involve:

  • Traditional techniques of crossbreeding.
  • Using chemicals or radiation to alter the genetic make-up of the organism's cells in a process called mutagenesis.
  • Applying recombinant DNA or genetic engineering techniques - for instance, introducing a gene from one species into another species.

Regardless of how they are produced, GM foods are regulated by Health Canada, which is responsible for establishing standards for the safety and nutritional quality of all foods sold in Canada. The Department controls the sale of GM foods through a mandatory pre-market notification procedure described under Division 28 of the Food and Drugs Regulations, also known as known as the Novel Foods Regulation.

A company typically takes seven to ten years to research, develop and test a novel food before filing a pre-market notification with the Food Directorate of Health Canada to obtain approval for sale.

Since 1994, slightly more than 180 novel foods - including whole foods, food products and food ingredients, and novel processes - have been approved for sale in Canada (the list is available at Novel Food Decisions - Approved Products). Of these, over 120 are considered to be GM foods. They range from insect-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant canola to genetically modified yeasts that reduce levels of unwanted compounds in wine.

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