Should we be able to judge a food by its ‘cover’?
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Regulatory agencies and policy makers think so.
The ‘cover’ in this case is not the company branding on the product packaging, but the labels used to inform consumers where a food originated, or what it contains or doesn’t contain.
Last July Health Canada published final guidelines for its contentious Front-of-Package (FOP) labelling in the Canada Gazette. FOP labelling requires most prepackaged products containing nutrients of public health concern (saturated fat, sugars and sodium) at or above specified thresholds be listed in a black and white label on the front of the product package.
Health Canada wrote in the Canada Gazette that the label “will help Canadians to more easily identify foods high in these nutrients. Avoiding excess consumption of these nutrients can help reduce associated health risks.”
If you are diabetic or have high blood pressure, for example, then having FOP labelling listing the sodium and sugar content can be helpful. You’re likely not going to purchase or consume the product if those values are too high and you care about your health.
FOP labelling can be a useful tool to reduce consumption of further processed foods, which fall into the prepackaged category and tend to be high in the ingredients of concern.
But when FOP labelling was first proposed, the Canadian dairy processing industry quickly realized that cheese and yogurt products would be subject to warning labels due to saturated fat content, which could deter consumption.
Nutritionists also worried that consumers would overlook an important source of calcium, as well as other minerals, vitamins and protein, thinking dairy products were bad for them.
Fluid milk was not in question because it is not considered prepackaged or further processed.
Fortunately, industry rallied and convinced Health Canada to make many dairy products exempt from FOP labelling rules. As “foods that are important sources of calcium, a shortfall nutrient that is not readily available in other foods”, Health Canada offers exemptions to the label requirements for saturated fats and sugars if they contain a specified amount of calcium per daily serving and have no added sugars (sugars naturally present in milk and added fruits are OK).
I understand the thought process from Health Canada to achieve its public health goals. But it’s an example of proposed labelling that could have caused significant injury to an agricultural sector, and perhaps to some consumers as well.
That’s why having a period of time for industry and consumer input on proposed regulations is so important, as is having a regulatory body capable of ensuring new regulations don’t cause negative consequences.
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There’s a new labelling challenge on the horizon that could affect Canadian agriculture, in particular the red meat sector.
Those in the Canadian meat industry may have experienced a déjà vu moment on March 6 when U.S. President Biden’s administration proposed a new rule reminiscent of the Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) dispute of the past.
The Biden administration proposed that all mmeat, poultry and eggs labelled as a U.S. product must come from animals raised and slaughtered within the United States.
Currently, rules for the ‘Product of USA’ or ‘Made in the USA’ label permit its use for meat derived from animals that were born and raised abroad and only processed in the United States. This was a hard-won battle by Canada and Mexico when COOL was first proposed in 2009. It took six years and a World Trade Organization challenge to end the COOL debate.
In a statement, the USDA said it undertook a review on the label in July 2021 “to understand what the ‘Product of USA’ claim means to consumers and inform planned rulemaking.”
The department said it found in a related survey of U.S. consumers that “a significant portion believ(es) the claim means that the product was made from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.” Their worry is that U.S. consumers will lose faith in their food regulatory system.
“If it says ‘Made in the USA,’ then it should be from cattle that have only known U.S.A. soil. Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, full stop,” U.S. Cattlemen’s Association president Justin Tupper said in separate statement.
But not all groups that will be affected by a new rule agree with Tupper. Several U.S. meat industry lobbyists say the proposed rule is essentially COOL 2.0 – and will only frustrate U.S. packers who import Canadian meat or livestock, just like COOL 1.0 did.
The North American meat industry is highly integrated, so if the new rule passes, it will result in increased costs for U.S. packers and processors and lower prices for Canadian producers, as seen when COOL was in effect.
In a separate statement March 7, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Trade Minister Mary Ng said Canada “remains concerned about any measures that may cause disruptions to the integrated North American livestock supply chains,” and will “closely review” the proposed new rules.
Let’s hope they do. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, language within the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement requires that each party to the trade pact ensures any regulations on labeling “accord treatment no less favourable than that accorded to like goods of national origin.”
Strong leadership from Canada and Mexico will be needed on this file. With the World Trade Organization essentially defunct and protectionism on the rise, the threat this rule could pass is real.