Quebec again ponders mandatory GMO labelling

Fourth of July celebrations at Vermont’s State House in Montpelier. (

Quebec’s agriculture minister has telegraphed an interest in following the lead of a next-door neighbour to require mandatory labelling for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The province’s governing Liberals previously called for such a system, making a GMO label law part of their election platform back in 2003, but have been quiet about their intentions since defeating the Parti Quebecois to return to power in 2014.

Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis on Tuesday indicated the province’s interest in such a law, following a visit to neighbouring Vermont the previous Friday, marking that state’s GMO label law coming into force.

Vermont’s general assembly passed the label law in 2014 for a July 1, 2016 effective date. It requires any food product containing GMO ingredients to be labelled to that effect, and bans such products from being marketed as “natural” or “naturally grown.”

Violations of the label law are subject to civil penalties of up to US$1,000 per day per product not carrying the appropriate label. The state has set a six-month grace period, recognizing packaged foods with longer shelf-lives.

Until Jan. 1, 2017, improperly-labelled foods for sale in Vermont will be presumed to have been packaged and shipped to stores before July 1 — unless there’s evidence that the product was distributed to a retailer on or after the law’s effective date.

While several industry players fought to overturn the Vermont law, its passage led several major U.S. food firms to adopt GMO labelling nationwide in recent months, so as to avoid the expense of creating separate labels for Vermont alone.

Campbell Soup, General Mills, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg and Mars, among others, have announced they will label some or all of their U.S. products nationwide for GMO content.

Paradis on Friday was among several dignitaries in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier, to celebrate the label law’s effective date, alongside Governor Peter Shumlin and U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.

The Quebec government, in its release, noted praise from Vermont state senator and organic farmer David Zuckerman, citing Paradis’ willingness to legislate mandatory labels for food sold in Quebec.

Paradis, in Tuesday’s release, said the Vermont event was an opportunity to share information about the process of adopting such legislation and the challenges involved in doing so.

“In Quebec, as in Vermont, consumers want to know what’s on their plate,” Paradis said in French, describing GMO labelling as a movement in step with transparency in public information.

The province, in its release, hailed the Vermont law as a “major advance” in transparency in food production, noting state officials’ “passion and conviction” in defending the law against challenges from food industry groups.

Jean Charest’s previous Liberal government in 2004 went so far as to commission a study from the Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM) on the costs and impacts of mandatory labelling — if Quebec were to be the only Canadian jurisdiction requiring it.

That study pegged the total start-up costs for food processors, distributors and government at about $161.75 million, with recurring costs of about $28.37 million per year for the province and industry to manage such a system.

The UQAM study also warned of potentially higher food prices and less variety in available food products as a result.

In Canada, several MPs have sought to introduce bills requiring GMO labelling nationwide — most recently on June 14, when Pierre-Luc Dusseault, the NDP MP for Sherbrooke, Que., introduced a private member’s bill.

On the other hand a Commons e-petition, urging MPs to reject any call for mandatory GMO labels, was launched in mid-April with sponsorship from another NDP MP, Kennedy Stewart of Burnaby, B.C.

That e-petition, as of Wednesday, sits with 526 signatures, topping the 500 needed for the petition to be certified for presentation in the House of Commons.

In the U.S., federal legislators recently tabled a bill to replace state GMO label laws such as Vermont’s with a single national labelling standard.

Vermont’s Shumlin last Friday criticized the proposed federal plan as a “flawed bill that will keep consumers in the dark when it comes to your right to know.”

The bill before Congress suffers from “a lack of clarity for enforcing monetary penalties if a company fails to comply with the labeling standard,” Shumlin said last month, and it would “potentially allow products with a significant portion of GMO ingredients to skate by without being subject to labeling requirements.” — Network

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