A former head of the CFIA says consumers shouldn’t know whether or not foods contain genetically engineered crops because the label is akin to a ‘skull and crossbones’
The old adage the consumer is always right doesn’t hold much cache for Ron Doering. In fact it doesn’t hold any.
The Ottawa-based lawyer and former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency spoke to members of the biotechnology industry during a recent GrowCanada conference in Calgary, urging them to continue to fight consumer demands for the labelling of genetically modified foods.
“(Consumers) don’t have an ability to understand this stuff,” he said. “The more you tell them, the less they know, often.”
The reality is that consumers need to be convinced that genetically modified organisms are nothing to fear, he told conference attendees, adding that will require messaging that goes beyond promoting what he called “sound science.”
“I think what we have to do is accept that consumers can’t move. Scientists, government regulators, industry are going to have to move, we are going to have to be way more creative of how we explain this stuff to consumers because they’re not really capable of moving to where we are,” he said.
Doering later clarified and said that he doesn’t believe consumers are stupid, only scientifically illiterate.
Bruce Cran calls that assessment “bulls–t.”
“That is absolutely untrue, that is rubbish. Consumers in Canada are very sophisticated and they understand it well,” said the head of the Consumers’ Association of Canada.
For nearly two decades the association has polled Canadian consumers on the issue of GM labelling and has consistently found that 90 per cent of Canadians want genetically modified foods to be identified.
But the former CFIA head said he believes consumers have fallen victim to “chemical paranoia,” thanks to what he terms the “mainstream-liberal media.”
“The growth of the environmental movement, the junk science of the Silent Spring book that got it started, obviously has created a major ideological challenge to the pesticide industry,” Doering said.
Consumers have been duped into the belief that organic is better than conventional, he added.
“Organic really is an ideology, you can’t fight it… you might as well debate faith with a Catholic,” he said, adding that the organic label amounted to a “tax on the gullible.”
But Cran believes it’s the Canadian government that has failed consumers, in part by allowing its food inspection agency to have close ties with agribusiness — too close to allow for independent public policy or consumer rights.
“There’s not enough information around, over whether genetically modified foods harm us… Canada hasn’t done a very good job, or any job, in relation to assisting consumers in understanding genetically modified foods,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe GM foods have undergone sufficient testing when it comes to long-term health effects.
Doering disagrees, and said long-term tests aren’t needed because people have been eating trillions of meals made with genetically engineered ingredients, without having so much as a “tummy ache.”
Doering said that requiring GM labels on food, would only serve to confirm that the products are harmful in the eyes of the consumer, and that would be bad for the biotech business.
“If you put a great big contains GM on all the products, you’re really putting a skull and crossbones on it, you’re saying there must be something dangerous about this stuff, or the government wouldn’t require it,” he said.
The Canadian government already requires nutritional labelling, including fat, salt, calorie and vitamin content.
Although disappointed by the trampling of consumers’ right to know what’s in their food, Cran said the biotech companies may have already won, by dragging the process on for such a long time.
“Genetically modified food has infiltrated its way into everything we eat, I don’t think it is possible to label it at this point,” he said, adding that 10 years ago his organization had a working group with the CFIA, but progress on the GM issue was stymied.
“It was very obvious we were being obstructed at every move by governmental forces, including the CFIA,” said Cran.
Indeed, Doering is proud of his work convincing then federal health minister Allan Rock to retract a plan to make GM labelling mandatory in the late 1990s. “I worked really, really hard to stop it,” he said, adding, “you just fight, fight, fight and never allow it to happen.”