There is an insatiable appetite by consumers to better know the food they eat. A food label is the principal venue to expose relevant information about food. This includes among other things unless exempt, the identity of the food, its net contents, ingredient list, allergen, gluten and sulphite labelling, nutrition information, as well as the address of the food manufacturer. Menus and menu boards in restaurants are also under pressure to provide relevant nutrition information.
The space on labels, menus and menu boards is limited and crowded. How much more information should be included? These are questions being considered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as part of its food labelling modernization initiatives. Even with more enhanced labelling, when will it be enough? For example, the CFIA is currently not requiring manufacturers to identify the presence of ingredients derived from genetically engineered (GE) sources. It’s not a health concern, so would not warrant such an obligation and the associated regulatory cost simply for the sake of knowing. However, it is information that consumers do often wish to know, and which as voluntary information might also benefit from accessibility of this technology.
An interesting case study unfolded in the U.S. this summer. It involved the tug of war over labelling foods that contain ingredients derived from GE sources. A compromise of sorts was reached that standardizes the approach throughout the U.S. Over the next few years the U.S. is to develop the necessary regulatory instruments prescribing how foods are to identify the presence of GE-sourced ingredients. The interesting element of the new U.S. legislation is that it is willing to look at new information technologies such as Quick Response (QR) codes on a label to link to more off-label information. As mentioned, this is a compromise related to a very hotly debated subject matter, but the concept of regulations accommodating the use of such technology is interesting and promising.
While the GE debate is perhaps largely responsible for bring attention to and inspiring the development of laws that would embrace this technology, there is a whole world of other possibilities as well. A label is a place where significant information of immediate interest should be presented. Consumers want to know about the food’s ingredients, nutrition, its durable life or expiration date, storage and handling, and about the business. When claims are made about food, such off-label information can assist in substantiating the claim, and could provide clarity and confidence regarding statements made on a label.
In the U.S. the SmartLabel program allows consumers to scan a QR code on a label with their cell phones, which will then open a “landing page” with additional information about the product. As per SmartLabel, it is estimated that within the next five years, 80 per cent of food labels in the U.S. will use this technology. The disadvantage for Canadians is that the current database of products is comprised of U.S. foods, and is focused on U.S. considerations. Those considerations, like allergen, ingredient and nutrition information, differ in Canada. As a result, such systems would need to address information needs based on Canadian requirements and expectations.
The current information that can be found on a QR code-linked SmartLabel landing page is largely the information already on a label. There is a section on “GMO Disclosure” and a few others that provide additional context. If such systems are to serve the needs of providing more relevant information, they will need to grow into that role. The current “edition” is just marginally beneficial. The inclusion of additional voluntary or prescribed information would seem to fit in rather well in our modern tech society. A person with a citrus allergy would not necessarily find immediate information on a label, as this is a not a priority food allergen requiring disclosure. Instead of calling the manufacturer, a quick scan might reveal addition details of interest. This assumes of course, such technology systems expand to meet such interests.
Under current Canadian laws there are no prescribed requirements to include any mandatory information via such information technology. While these systems are still in their infancy, it is well worth consideration by the CFIA and Health Canada in furthering food labelling modernization in Canada.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at [email protected]