A label is a place to communicate. There is a need for information such as the name of the food, net contents, ingredient list, allergen information and the name of the legal agent of the food. There is voluntary information like nutrient content claims or health claims, as well as highlighted ingredients. But one of the largest underappreciated facts about food labelling is that government has a very tight grip on all aspects of it. Federal authorities like Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have legislation that requires the declaration of certain information and prohibits others. Everything on a food label is potentially subject to some type of food law or regulation so as to support enforcement of non-compliant and misleading food labels. So what’s the problem?
“Consulting Canadians to Modernize and Improve Food Labels” is a recently completed Health Canada survey which, not surprisingly, exposes some misunderstandings, but also shows that consumers do get much of food labelling. For instance, the Canadian nutrition facts table, modelled largely after that in the U.S., appears to be generally liked by Canadians. Yet interestingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thinks its format is no longer adequate and is due for some major upgrades. Clearly what consumers like and what authorities deem to be information with relevance to public health may not be in total alignment. How this will influence Health Canada is still to be seen.
Many consumer recommendations in the study involved ingredient labelling. Collective names like “natural flavour” or “colour” are no long enough, and consumers now want to know what these actually are. And they want similar ingredients grouped together, like sugars. Basically, consumers want to know more about the ingredients in food, and in the simplest terms possible. This might prompt Health Canada to redefine collective and class ingredient terminology. Colours, or at least those of particular interest, might have to be declared by name. Ingredients like glucose syrups, sugars and other similar sweeteners may end up having to be grouped together, resulting in their appearance higher up in the list of ingredients. Canadian ingredient labelling is largely based on decades old regulations that really do not serve the high information demands of modern Canadian consumers. In other words, there is room for improvement.
There also seems to be awareness among consumers that claims like “natural” and “nutritious” might infer that the food overall is a better choice nutritionally. This may put Health Canada on the path of setting up guardrails for certain types of claims. Foods governed by the FDA, for example, are required to provide disclosure statements when nutrient content claims are made but where the level of certain “undesirable” nutrients are exceeded. Products are also prohibited from being represented as healthy if certain nutrients are not present in specified amounts. Is Canada heading in a direction of disclosure statements, and proving guardrails consumers can feel more comfortable with?
Also not surprising is the fact that consumers wish to know more about where their food comes from, something that will clearly point Health Canada and the CFIA in the direction of more uniform country of origin labelling. Consumers are now keenly interested in the methods of production their food has undergone as well. This might include knowing poultry is free range, wanting the use of pesticides identified, and most controversial of all, wanting genetically engineered foods to be labelled. Certain claims, like non-use of antibiotics, are currently covered under CFIA guidelines, although clarity and the assurance of accuracy regarding such claims can be enhanced. Canada might not be ready nor benefit from legislation like California’s Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986), however consumers do want more assurances that the foods they purchase are safe, and they’re prepared to make their own decisions on that. Maintaining control over food labelling and advertising is Health Canada’s way of connecting consumers to its public health policies and priorities, but it will need to work harder to maintain trust.
One other interesting comment from consumers is that they do not just expect food labels to provide more information; they also want to see better information on company websites. Will Health Canada create labelling for which supplemental information could be included on a website? Does everything have to be on the label? We know food labelling modernization is coming, but at this point in time we can only speculate about what that may look like.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at [email protected]