How much do you really know about the foods you eat? One would think that in our technological information age we should be the most informed generation ever.
So would you gauge yourself more knowledgeable about food than a person from the 1800s? Before the early 1800s people thought tomatoes were poisonous. How preposterous could that be? It might not be so crazy if you knew that tomatoes belonged to the nightshade family Solanaceae. Its bad boy reputation was helped by it being implicated in the poisoning of Europeans. It was later discovered that it was not the tomato, but the fact that aristocrats ate from pewter plates and that the acidic tomato would leach the lead from the plates. Tomato leaves, stems and even green tomatoes do, however, contain naturally occurring toxins tomatine and solanine, although not enough to be harmful. In 1820, in front of a courthouse in Salem, N.J., Robert Johnson ate a basket of tomatoes and survived, demonstrating to some 2,000 onlookers that tomatoes are not toxic. Had food labels existed then, would consumers have been better informed?
The point here is that while we have the benefit of science, accessible information and fairly comprehensive food labelling, we still have a lot to learn about food in order to make informed decisions about what we eat. That learning is not static either, it evolves. We certainly have far more choices to make than our grandparents, and foods these days can be rather complex to fully appreciate. It is thus not truly fair to compare our contemporary literacy to that of history. One thing we seem to have in common, however, is that we are still prone to having our judgement clouded when information is not easy to understand, or when credible information is overshadowed by doubtful speculation.
A food label is one component in overall food literacy resources, and it plays a crucial role in providing necessary information that allows consumers to better relate to food. A few examples of mandatory information on labels include a net content declaration to judge value; an ingredient list to gauge quality and identify what is desirable and undesirable; and nutrition facts for health, date labelling and proper handling instructions to maintain quality and safety. Nutrient content, health and qualitative claims like “natural” are voluntary, and are also governed by regulations or guidelines. This armada of information supports a diversity of interests, but is it intuitive and supported well enough off the label to satisfy our contemporary food labelling literacy appetite?
Despite popular belief, food labelling and advertising is highly regulated. There are multitudes of regulations at all levels of government. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is a federal agency that is largely responsible for food labelling compliance. Consumer skepticism over the predictability and credibility of food labelling seems to be on the rise. For example, why are best before dates limited to foods with a durable life of 90 days or less? Currently the components of cheese, when used as an ingredient and when present at a level of less than 10 per cent, do not need to be declared in a list of ingredients. Is this predictable for consumers? A fundamental food law in the Food and Drugs Act is that foods must be labelled in a manner that does not misrepresent its character, value, composition, quantity, merit or safety. Everything on a label, including pictures, revolves around this.
While there are areas where food labelling could be enhanced to better support the broader food literacy campaign, it is not in dire straits. It just needs some modernization. Health Canada and the CFIA have embarked on a significant food labelling modernization effort that will evolve over the next few years. A draft outlining these plans should be out by mid-2014. It will look at essentially all existing requirements to see if they are still relevant, and what else might be. The larger challenge appears to be re-establishing credibility among consumers that food labelling reflects accurate and relevant information. Even with the most comprehensive information on a label, it will not meet contemporary needs if it is not simple, predictable and credible. We can make it simple and predictable, but we need the CFIA and Health Canada to reaffirm themselves in this modernization effort as credible authorities and guardians of the fundamental food labelling law principals.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at [email protected]