Novel foods: Safety of genetically modified foods
We do not allow the sale of genetically modified (GM) foods in Canada unless Health Canada's scientists are satisfied that they are safe and nutritious.
On this page
- Safety assessment of GM foods in Canada
- Comparative approach
- Regulating GM foods in Canada
- Risks of GM techniques in the food supply
- Long-term effects of GM foods
- Canada's international involvement with GM food safety
Safety assessment of GM foods in Canada
We do a thorough safety assessment of all novel GM foods to make sure that they are as safe and nutritious as foods already sold in Canada.
We have a clear safety assessment process that follows the Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods. There are strict requirements for data and procedure.
Our scientific review considers:
- the microbiological and chemical safety of the food
- the potential of the GM food to cause allergic reactions
- the potential for introducing new toxins into the GM food
- how the GM food was developed, including any genetic changes made to any plant, animal or microorganism used in the product
- how the GM food compares to an equivalent non-modified food, in terms of:
- nutrition quality
- what it is made of (for example, fats, proteins and carbohydrates)
The main steps in the safety assessment:
- A manufacturer, importer or developer submits detailed information to Health Canada. They outline exactly how the product was developed.
- If the data provided is not complete, Health Canada scientists will ask the developer for more information and scientific data. Some products that do not meet our strict criteria either have their submission closed by Health Canada, or withdrawn voluntarily by the manufacturer before a safety assessment is completed.
- Health Canada scientists may supplement the information submitted by the manufacturer with relevant published data from the larger scientific community.
- Health Canada scientists assess all the information available. The reviews take into consideration all the available evidence before making a final decision about the health and safety of a new GM food.
The use of company-generated data to perform pre-market assessments of GM foods is a standard scientific method of evaluation used by regulators around the world.
While many studies published in scientific journals are the result of developer testing, a significant number of independent laboratories are also studying and publishing on the safety of GM foods.
The safety assessment process is based upon principles developed by international experts from the:
- Codex Alimentarius Commission
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
One way to establish safety of GM foods is through a comparative approach. This approach allows regulatory agencies to identify potential safety and nutritional issues.
The comparative approach identifies all differences between the GM food and the closest unmodified food with a history of safe use. We assess the differences for potential impacts on all aspects of food safety. If the differences aren't found to impact food safety, then we conclude that the GM food is as safe as food that is already considered safe to eat.
The comparative approach to GM food safety assessment is used by regulatory agencies around the world in countries such as:
- New Zealand
- the United States
- the European Union member states
Regulating GM foods in Canada
Health Canada has been assessing GM foods for more than 20 years. As of 2019, over 140 genetically modified (GM) foods have been permitted for sale in Canada.
- all of the GM foods we have reviewed are as safe and nutritious as non-GM foods
- we have not found any verifiable scientific evidence that shows GM foods are less safe than traditional varieties
- we have not found a study that caused us to change our conclusions about any assessed GM food product
If new information concerning the safety of GM foods does arise, we will:
- review the new data carefully
- take appropriate action if we identify any risks or concerns from eating GM foods
Internationally, scientists have concluded that GM foods pose no more risk to human health than non-GM foods. In fact, GM foods are subject to a far higher level of regulatory oversight and scientific requirements than traditional organisms consumed as food.
Risks of GM techniques in the food supply
The risks of GM techniques in the food supply are the same as for foods produced by conventional means. These include potential risks from:
- toxic compounds
- allergenic compounds
However, techniques used to produce GM foods may:
- permit the transfer of genetic material from unrelated species
- transfer a gene from an organism expressing a protein that has no history of use as a food
The safety assessment:
- gives assurances that toxic or allergenic compounds are not transferred along with the desired characteristic when new DNA is introduced into an organism
- assures that any genetic changes made to an organism do not increase the level of allergenic compounds or anti-nutrients which are naturally present in some organisms consumed as food
Long-term effects of GM foods
Using GM techniques does not introduce unique risks into the food supply. As a result, the potential for long-term effects from these foods are no different than for conventional foods that have been a safe part of the Canadian diet for a long time.
Furthermore, there is no current evidence to indicate that long-term studies are needed to ensure the safety of foods produced using this technology.
Some foods may require additional considerations to address long-term health effects if the GM techniques result in:
- changes that create significantly different nutrient combinations
- other novel food characteristics not previously encountered in the food supply
In such cases, long-term studies may be included in the safety assessment of these products.
Canada's international involvement with GM food safety
Health Canada was involved with the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Forces on Foods derived from Biotechnology. The Task Forces were created by the Codex Alimentarius Commission to:
- develop general principles for risk analysis of foods derived from biotechnology
- provide specific guidance on the safety assessment of such foods
The work of the Task Forces led to a number of documents being adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, including:
- Principles for the Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology (2003)
- Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessments of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Plants (2003)
- Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods Produced Using Recombinant-DNA Microorganisms (2003)
- Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Animals (2008)
Health Canada's safety assessment approach is consistent with guidance documents adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
Health Canada also participates in the work of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Group for the Safety of Novel Foods and Feeds. This OECD Working Group is intended to promote the same standards for safety assessments and regulations of novel GM foods and feeds around the world.
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