The consolidation of federal food legislation begins the cycle for the next two decades of food in Canada
My previous article focused on the significant changes to Canadian food regulations over the past 20 years that I have written for Food in Canada. In this article I will share some thoughts on what the future may offer. If the past is our teacher, significant changes take a decade or more to come to fruition. That means that the face of food regulations in 20 years from now will bear the smiles or frowns that are set in motion now. It is a bit difficult to see that face now, as we are in the eye of a hurricane of change that is now underway.
Beginning the cycle of the next 20 years is the consolidation of federal food legislation. The Safe Food for Canadians Act and its regulations have fulfilled the vision of not only consolidating and modernizing Canadian food legislation, but also the CFIA itself. When the agency was created in 1997 it inherited much of the food legislation it administered and enforced. It is now creating it to fit into its vision.
In 2013 the food activities of the CFIA were placed under the authority of Health Canada, with the independence of the agency preserved. In future modernization efforts the agency may be able to “franchise” into provincial food inspection systems and legislation. Provinces and territories might find advantages in the agency’s new outcome-based view of food safety and inspection, while food companies would have more opportunities trading within Canada and internationally.
Food labelling modernization is currently a top priority. Ingredient and nutrition labelling are just two of the many label features undergoing a makeover. While the CFIA is currently looking at how to better use technocracy such as email and social media to provide information, labelling is still largely built around the idea of a physical package to which a label is applied. As a result, labelling regulations have yet to catch up with online sales, and there are currently no rules around what information must be provided for food sold online. That’s not to say that there is a free for all in online sales. Prohibitions on making nutrient content and health claims are applicable, and claims in general could be considered misleading under current food regulations. There is, however, no prescribed requirement to provide information. Currently Health Canada is exploring mandatory front-of-packaging nutrition labelling to identify sugars, saturated fat and sodium if these are 15 per cent or more of the daily value.
The concept of food labelling is still very much fixed on the idea of a physical package providing need-to-know information for consumers at the point of sale. As the sale of online food grows, so too will demand by consumers for more consistent information. In addition, food labelling regulations are increasingly becoming more prescriptive on wise food choices consistent with government initiatives like the new Canada’s Food Guide and Health Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy. It’s likely that once this next round of package label modernization is complete, Canadian regulatory authorities may start to focus on online sales of foods.
Foods sold in more traditional retail environments in the future may also be able to use technology to move information off the label. The CFIA is already looking at the possibility of using QR codes to link to online supporting information in the case of consumer value claims – why not other information as well? If the information is present at the point of sale, would it matter if it is not on the immediate label? In the future, food items may be added to smart devices automatically as we shop, allowing consumers to access label information. This could also help to harmonize food distribution in countries that have reciprocal acceptable practices with Canadian trading partners. Foods would still need to be compliant with Canadian regulations, but managing inventory for multiple jurisdictions could be made more efficient.
Food sustainability has become a key factor for many consumers. Today genetically modified food is getting a bad rap. In the future, such modified foods could be seen more favourably, particularly those that reduce dependency on agrochemicals, that are disease resistant and provide more sustainable yields, and that reduce food wastage.
Technology will continue to be an important influence on the future of food regulations. Making healthy and sustainable food selections will still be up to consumers.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at [email protected]