Food for thought

March/April 2017   Comments

Government proposals and private members’ bills address the need for clearer information on labels and for restrictions on marketing practices

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Proposed amendments to Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations are designed to improve food labelling, making the information consumers see on prepackaged food easier to use and understand. Health Canada has given the food industry until December 2021 to comply with the new regulations.

While nutrition experts welcome the changes, they worry that they may come into effect too late to stem what one nurse manager calls a pandemic of diabetes in Canada and around the world.

“About 3.5 million Canadians have been diagnosed with diabetes, and a total of 11 million Canadians have glucose abnormalities, including diabetes and pre-diabetes” says Lori Berard, who leads the diabetes research group at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg. “People with pre-diabetes have exactly the same risk for heart disease as those who have diabetes.”

Food labels can be especially confusing for people who are trying to make dietary changes, many of them needing help from dietitians to sort through the maze of information listed on the product.

The timeline for the food industry worries one member of Parliament who is asking the government to focus on sugar as the number one culprit in making people sick. Last March, NDP MP Don Davies introduced Bill C-257, an amendment to the Food and Drugs Act. The bill would require that the sugar content of prepackaged products appear on a prominently displayed label.

“Labelling has proven to have a positive impact on the purchasing decisions of consumers,” he says. “This bill says sugar is an integral part of that choice. Consumers should know, right off the bat, how much sugar is in that product — with no games being played.”

Davies hopes the government will move his bill onto the agenda and make it a priority. Otherwise, he says, it could take three years before it is debated and studied because it is so far down the line.

In 2014, Davies introduced a nearly identical bill (C-602), which did not pass. He got the idea for his cause from students in his riding who entered an online contest he runs every year. “It was interesting to me that young Canadians, students at the age of 16 or 17, were not only aware of the impact of sugar but were concerned about the issues around consumer information.”

His fight is also personal. Two years ago, his mother was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “I also have three children, and my youngest daughter has special needs; weight control for children with special needs is a particular challenge.”

The government plans to combine all sugars on the nutrition facts table, but it has not distinguished between added and natural sugars. Diabetes Canada is concerned this plan doesn’t go far enough.

“Separating the two would be significantly more effective in helping to reduce intake of added (or free) sugar,” says Joanne Lewis, director of healthy eating and nutrition programming for Diabetes Canada. “We believe this is a missed opportunity and expect to see this inclusion in the future.”

It’s not that simple, according to Renelle Briand, a spokesperson for Health Canada. “Added sugars are ingredients that manufacturers add to their products and that must be declared in the list of ingredients,” she says. “The nutrition facts table declares the amount of nutrients, rather than ingredients. On the table, the amount of added sugars in the food is included in the amount of total sugars, which is consistent with the approach to all other nutrients. Furthermore, laboratory tests cannot distinguish between the naturally occurring and added sugars.”

Front-of-package labelling
Health Canada is also considering a proposal for the use of front-of-package (FOP) labelling. The department held public consultations in December 2016 and January 2017 as part of the process and will use the comments to develop the regulatory proposal it will put forward later in the year.

FOP labelling is not a replacement for the nutrition facts table, Briand explains. “It is a simple tool that can be used to complement the table. It will provide consumers with access to simplified nutrition information to help them make healthier food choices when they are limited by time, motivation or [have] relatively low health literacy.”

The information will be in the form of symbols that indicate foods are high in sugars, sodium and/or saturated fats.

Genetically modified food labelling
Another private member’s bill on labelling was introduced last June by NDP MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault. He believes prepackaged food should have information on the label to let Canadians know when they are eating genetically modified (GM) food.

Bill C-291 states that such labelling would “prevent the purchaser or the consumer of the food from being deceived or misled in respect of its composition.”

The bill is designed to increase transparency in the food sector, Dusseault says. “By labelling GMOs [genetically modified organisms], consumers will be able to make more informed choices about what the food they buy really contains,” he says. “The Liberal government has promised more transparency and openness; more than 60 jurisdictions around the world have a mandatory labelling on GMO. It is time for Canada to do the same.”

In Canada, GM labelling is required only for food that poses a scientifically determined health risk, such as an allergen, or if significant compositional or nutritional changes have been identified that can be mitigated through labelling.
In 2011, former NDP MP Alex Atamanenko tabled Bill C-257; it would have required the minister of health to identify food ingredients that were genetically modified, publish a list of GM foods in the Canada Gazette and label all GM foods as such. The bill was not successful.

Bill C-291 has passed first reading in the House of Commons.

Last spring, Health Canada conducted public opinion research to further understand consumers’ knowledge of and attitudes and behaviours toward food products derived from biotechnology and their reactions toward food products derived from genetically modified animals. The results indicate that 78 per cent of Canadians support mandatory GM labelling.

Prohibiting marketing to children
Health Canada will also introduce new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children. As a first step, Health Canada hosted a policy roundtable last November to seek Canadian and international experts’ input on key policy elements, such as marketing scope, age of child audience and foods to restrict to inform the federal policy approach.

The department is also reviewing Bill S-228, a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine last September, and will determine how it aligns with the government’s approach to the issue.

Bill S-228 proposes to prohibit food and beverage companies from packaging or labelling food in a way that is directed primarily at children, Raine says. It would ban the publishing or broadcasting of food and beverage ads that show products, labels, brands or logos that appeal to children. Testimonials or endorsements aimed at children, whether by real people, fictional characters or animals, would be prohibited along with any sales promotions offered to purchasers and third parties.

Raine says she introduced the bill because she is concerned about the proliferation of junk food advertising directed at children from print, broadcast and social media. “There’s no doubt that advertisers are targeting children.”

Previous attempts by MPs to pass bills that prohibit marketing to children (e.g., Bill C-430 in 2012) have come before Parliament but were not successful.

Quebec was the first government in Canada to enact legislation of this kind. Since 1980, marketing to children has been banned under the province’s Consumer Protection Act. The act defines advertising broadly; all formats and media are targeted when they are used to distribute or broadcast commercial advertising.

“Bill S-228 works well in conjunction with Quebec’s legislation, which covers only one form of marketing — advertising,” Raine said in the Senate. “There are many other ways to market, and Bill S‑228 seeks to capture them all. Whatever form it takes, any marketing that is directed at children is simply wrong.”

The Food and Drugs Act has “clear and substantial penalties for offences which are large enough to act as a real deterrent should the bill become law,” she said.

Bill S-228, known as theChild Health Protection Act,has passed second readingand has been referred to the Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology.

The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, which includes the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dietitians of Canada and Diabetes Canada among its members, applauds the bill.

Rose Simpson

Rose Simpson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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