Gary Gnirss examines the new Food Labelling for Industry guidelines
Shazam! In a flash it was transformed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) “Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising,” (GFLA) as we used to know it, has been reinvented into CFIA’s new offering, “Food Labelling for Industry.” The GFLA has been a repository of food labelling and advertising policy and guidelines since 1961, when it was known as the “Guide for Food Manufacturers and Advertisers.” Over the decades “The Guide” has had several major revisions, with the most recent major change in 2003. This followed the introduction of mandatory nutrition labelling (MNL) in December 2002. The CFIA, in comparison, has had a comparatively short existence, since 1997. It too is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.
The new Food Labelling for Industry is not a conventional document in the traditional sense of migrating a printed reference to the web. It is more a web collection of policies and guidelines that have been largely recomposed from what had been in the GFLA and in the CFIA’s collection of “Decisions.” The GFLA was well known, but the CFIA’s Decisions less so. The Decisions themselves were a collection of food, labelling and advertising interpretations developed since the early 1990s. There was some good stuff in there that deservingly should have been incorporated into the GFLA years ago.
The new format has no chapters or section references. In this respect it lacks the old fashioned intuitiveness of the GFLA. This loss of navigational references also makes searching for known information a chore. The search for unknown information is an even harder task. That effort can be summed up by the expression, “good luck!”
For example, try looking up the guidelines on “natural.” If you find a page on natural production claims and think that is all there is, think again. To begin with, one has to assume this might be under a specific tab such as “Composition and Quality” claims. The link under that tab is to natural production claims. Under the “Method of Production” tab there is the link to more conventional contexts of “natural.” While each addresses specific scenarios of natural, intuitively one might expect to see these grouped together and not on separate web pages. Under the “Shipping Container” labelling tab there is only a generic version of shipping containers, but no commodity-specific information on which items have unique shipping or bulk container labelling requirements. For that, one must find the applicable references under the commodity-specific section. If one did not know this already, the search for labelling references for shipping containers could be rather frustrating.
There has been some tweaking and some new additions to the guidelines, including those related to artisan and natural production claims. These are not absolutely new, as the CFIA has had guidelines on these for a while. But they are now being expressed more formally. Interestingly, there are some new additions that had previously not been in the GFLA, but which were in the guide prior to the 2003 version. So it’s a resurrection of sorts. When the 2003 version was created it was done with some haste following the introduction of MNL. That caused a major rewrite, and a few things did not find their way back into the guide. For example, the term “nutritious” is now again defined as requiring a food to contain a source of a nutrient that may be declared in the nutrition facts table. Rounding rules for the very specific nutrition information format required for foods made for special dietary use, like meal replacements and nutritional supplements, are now included, but are also based on those that were in the guide before 2003.
It’s not all bad for those who have a more positive outlook. There is a new search tool, the “Guidance Document Repository.” This search feature does not allow for keywords, but can be used to narrow down categories for searching. For example, if you search for “food/labelling/labelling,” which might sound peculiar, you get 41 hits. Search for “food/meat and poultry products/manual of procedures” and you get 274 hits. Unless you are prepared to spend the whole day reading, this is not much help. If you are looking for anything specific, you may as well get the manual and browse through it the old fashioned way. And there is always the general search feature on the CFIA’s website. So get comfortable, and make yourself a tea or coffee – you could be looking for a while.
The transformation is not complete. Food labelling modernization is still underway. Regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) also still need to be created. And once these are finalized, further revisions to the information will be needed. Both the SFCA and the Food and Drugs Act have provision to incorporate documents by reference. It will be interesting to see if the CFIA will consider this.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at email@example.com