I’ve been frustrated by the ‘verification’ labelling of non-GMO foods which fail to have GMO equivalents in the market. This past summer I decided to share these frustrations with the CFIA regarding the labelling of cherry tomatoes. I submitted a complaint to the CFIA about the non-GMO labelling of cherry tomatoes, as well as a Canadian tomato grower and distributor, Windset Farms. The CFIA’s response is below, as is the letter to Windset farms. After one week, I’ve had no verbal or written response from Windset Farms.
October 10, 2017
Dear Windset Farms;
I am writing you, seeking information on why your company labels packages of tomatoes, particularly grape tomatoes, as being verified as non-GMO.
I have been a working academics for nearly 20 years and am aware of FlavrSavr tomatoes being approved in 1994, but they were withdrawn from the market in 1999. Do you think that consumers may confuse your tomatoes with this variety that hasn’t been on the market for nearly 20 years? The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications maintains a database of commercialized GM crops around the globe and as of the end of 2016, they do not list GM tomatoes as being produced anywhere. They do list 11 different authorized GM tomato traits, with the last being authorized by Canada in 2000. However, despite the approval for consumption, they have never been approved for production in Canada. In fact only the United States and China have approved their production.
Knowing that tomatoes are not approved to be produced in Canada, or nearly anywhere else in the world, I would appreciate if you could send me the evidence of where and when GM tomatoes have been commercialized anywhere. Given that your company has never grown GMO products and that you merely “wanted to offer better transparency to customers”, I gather that your company has proof of them being produced somewhere. I trust that you possess this information and that is why you are using non-GMO labeling.
If it is possible, I would appreciate it if you could explain your company’s ethical position to label tomatoes as non-GMO, when as far as I know as an academic, there are no GMO tomatoes being produced and imported into Canada. Do you not think that this violates business ethics in Canada by misleading consumers to believe that GMO tomatoes are in the market? To me, at best, this is deceitful, at worst fraudulent. Are ethics important to Windset Farms?
I look forward to your response.
Stuart Smyth, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor & Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovations
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
College of Agriculture and Bioresources
University of Saskatchewan
Previous CFIA Inquiry and Response Regarding Non-GMO Labelling of Tomatoes
Subject: WEB RESPONSE / REPONSE DU WEB ID# 2017/8-1053: Food Labelling
Date: 18/08/2017 11:45:07 AM
First Name: Stuart
Last Name: Smyth
FOOD SAFETY OR LABELLING CONCERN
What type of complaint/concern are you reporting?: Food Labelling
Brand Name of the Product: Concerto Classic Tomatoes
Common name of Product: Cherry tomatoes
Size/Weight: 2 lbs
Name of the store where product was purchased: Costco
The cherry tomatoes, imported and sold by Windset Farms, are clearly labelled with the ‘Verified Non-GMO Project’ label. There are no GMO tomatoes, cherry or any other tomato variety, in commercial production. This is intentional consumer deception as Windset Farms is suggesting to consumers that GMO cherry tomatoes have to exist if they have provided evidence that this product is non a GMO product.
GMO products can only be labelled as non-GMO if there is a GMO product present in the marketplace. The CFIA has previously prevented a brewery in Quebec from advertising beer brewed with non-GMO barley as there is no GM barley. Consistent application of Canada’s labelling regulations is required to ensure that consumers are as informed with factual information.
Subject: RE: WEB RESPONSE / REPONSE DU WEB ID# 2017/8-1053: Food Labelling
Good Afternoon Stuart,
Thank you for bringing your concern to the attention of the CFIA.
The “Non GMO Project Verified” logo indicates that a third party has certified the product after verifying its compliance against their standard. For instance, a label for tomatoes with a “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo is likely to inform consumers that this product has been verified against a standard, but it does not necessarily suggest that the product is the only “Non-GMO” tomato on the market. Therefore, it is not considered to create false uniqueness and is not considered to be an implied “Non-GMO” claim. “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo is a registered logo of an organization called “Non GMO Project”. The organization verifies that the product has been produced in compliance with their own standard (Non-GMO Project Standard) before issuing the logo. The logo indicates that a third party has certified the product after verifying its compliance against a standard, and the consumers can refer to the web link on third party certification for additional information. More information can be found at www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification/the-standard/
Please do not hesitate to contact us with any other questions or concerns in the future.
~Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Maybe I’m wrong, but it certainly appears like there is a loop-hole in Canada’s food labelling guidelines, where third-party certifiers are exempt from “false uniqueness”.
While I’ve been vocal about not labelling GMOs, as this suggests they’re riskier or less healthy products than non-GMOs, I know there are those who want labelling. Since the Canadian government agrees that there is no scientific or health merit for mandatory GMO labelling, I’m surprised they’re not willing to inform consumers about falsehoods of third-party labelling. I believe this greatly contributes to consumer misunderstanding of many food products.
If you happen to be someone who wants GMO labelling, non-GMO labels may seem helpful, but they’re not transparent. If you wish to have GMO labels or at least be guided by non-GMO verification, shouldn’t that label have to be transparent? While processed foods are more difficult to determine whether the corn or sugar is GMO-free, certain raw goods don’t have a GMO equivalent. Tomatoes are a perfect example of this! While Canada approved four GM tomatoes varieties between 1996-2000, they were only approved for food import. They were never approved for production in Canada. Since then, Flavr Savr production has been abandoned and was withdrawn from the market in 1997. In fact, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network reports that of the four GM tomato approved for imports, “none of them are on the market anywhere in the world.”
If labelling is what you want, then you should be able to rely on that label. Unfortunately, it seems like the use of non-GMO labelling by third parties doesn’t confirm whether or not there is a GMO substitute product or ingredient out there. There is no GM approved wheat or dairy, yet we find non-GMO labels on boxes of dry pasta, eggs, cheese and spices, where none of the ingredients have a GMO equivalent on the market. If you’re looking to avoid GMOs, you shouldn’t be led to think that your food contains GMOs when it never could. You’re paying more money for misleading non-GMO verification in these instances.