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|Letter to Health Canada Director Ronald Burke from Alliance for Food Label Reform: Amendments to Food and Drug Regulations concerning nutrition labelling, nutrition claims, and health claims published in the Canada Gazette, Part I on June 16, 2001.
September 14, 2001
Mr. Ronald Burke
Re: Nutrition Labelling, Nutrition Claims, and Health Claims; Canada Gazette, Part I (published June 16, 2001)
Dear Mr. Burke:
The Alliance for Food Label Reform(1) would like to congratulate Health Canada and Minister Rock for moving ahead with plans to introduce comprehensive food labelling reforms. We are especially pleased with the decision to mandate that comprehensive nutrition information be reported on most packaged foods in absolute values and as a percentage of the average recommended daily intake, and that this information be displayed on labels in a uniform, easy-to-read format.
Benefits of food label reforms
Preventative health care is a forward thinking, cost-effective approach to enhancing the health of the public. As Health Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada noted, poor diet is expected to cost the Canadian economy more than $76 billion during the next two decades.(2) The proposed reforms to food labelling rules are expected to generate $5 billion in net savings over the same period as a result of declining premature deaths and disabilities due to cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. These predicted cost savings contrast very favorably with the comparatively small $263 to $357 million in costs to industry for implementing the label reforms.(3)
The opportunity and need for refinements to the proposal
The proposed amendments to the Food and Drug Regulations represent an opportunity for fundamental reform of food labels, and all reasonable steps should be taken to optimize this opportunity to capture benefits not accounted for in the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement as published in the June 16, 2001 Canada Gazette notice. For instance, the regulatory proposal should extend the scope of mandatory nutrition labelling rules to encompass all fresh meat, poultry, seafood and in-store baked goods some of which are chief sources of heart-disease-promoting saturated and trans fats. This review could also be used as an opportunity to require concise explanatory notes in nutrition claims to, for example, prevent consumers from getting the false impression that low fat and low sugar foods are necessarily also low calorie foods.(4)
It is also critical that the proposed regulatory amendments be revised to prevent the proliferation of misleading claims especially in connection with the proposed health claims which are currently prohibited outright under Canadian law. While the Alliance for Food Label Reform has been a strong advocate of mandatory, nutrition labelling, we have been concerned that some health and nutrition marketing claims may deceive consumers and impair, rather than improve, the health status of Canadians. Two of the five proposed health claims are of particular concern because they could mislead consumers. For example, the osteoporosis risk reduction claim would, as proposed, be permitted on foods that are high in heart-disease-promoting saturated fat. Putting the claim on these foods would mislead the public and, rather than benefit the health of the public, it could increase the risk of other diseases and undermine the credibility of the entire food label. Similarly, the cancer risk reduction claim would be allowed on foods such as condiments, fruit jams, and fruit jellies that are high in sodium or contain very little fruits or vegetables (the ingredients upon which the justification for the claim is based). We urge that these shortcomings be remedied before the regulations are finalized, not after they have caused problems.
Specific recommendations for improving the regulatory proposal
In particular, the proposed regulations could be vastly improved by taking the following measures:
Another possible approach would be to require that, in the case of the calcium/vitamin D-osteoporosis claim, a separate claim statement be used for products higher in saturated fat. Under this approach, the claim statement should be worded so that parents will know to buy different types of milk and other foods for their children (i.e., low fat for the adults and higher fat for the children), or so parents will know to gradually switch the family back to lower saturated fat dairy foods as their children reach the end of linear growth. Following this approach would address Health Canadas concern that limiting the claim to low fat products may impair the bone growth of children by indirectly decreasing their fat intake. We propose that high calcium/vitamin D foods that have more than 2 grams of saturated fat be required to disclose in the claim statement the amount of saturated fat in a serving of the food and advise adult consumers to choose foods lower in saturated fat.(9)
Health Canada has an opportunity to fashion new food labelling regulations that will deliver maximum health benefits to Canadians and be regarded, by public health officials world-wide, as the model to emulate much like the current Canadian tobacco regulations. We urge Health Canada to review its proposal with the objective of ambitiously advancing the publics health, in particular, by ensuring that nutrition information is on as many foods as possible, including fresh meat, poultry, seafood, and in-store baked goods. At a minimum, the federal government should not finalize weak eligibility rules for the use of health claims that could promote unhealthful dietary practice and ultimately harm, rather than benefit, the health of consumers.
If Health Canada can design health claims messages and eligibility criteria that send accurate, useful messages to consumers which can truly assist them in selecting more healthful foods, it should require all eligible foods to make all applicable claims on their labels. Voluntary health claims on a few products may simply mimic the problems of voluntary nutrition labelling. By contrast, mandatory health claims for all eligible foods would ensure that consumers have complete and consistent health information about all foods that qualify to make claims.(11)
We also urge that Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have the funds necessary to educate the public about the new labels, monitor compliance by manufacturers, and take appropriate enforcement measures when necessary.
If we can be of any assistance to your office in addressing these concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us at (613) 565-2140.
[original signature by BJ]
cc. The Honourable Allan Rock, M.P., P.C., Minister of Health
1. The Alliance for Food Label Reform is a coalition of 17 non-profit organizations representing nearly two million consumers, scientists, physicians, nutritionists, and other health professionals from all across Canada. The Alliance has urged Health Canada and Members of Parliament, since 1997, to establish mandatory, comprehensive, easy-to-read nutrition information on all food labels and to prevent the misleading use of health and nutrition marketing claims for foods.
2. This estimate includes the diet-related costs (expressed in 2000 dollars) anticipated over the period 2002-2022 for only four diagnostic categories: cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. See Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, Costs and Benefits of Nutrition Information, (Ottawa: HC and AAFC, May 2000) at 4.
3. Ibid. at 4 and 6. See also, Canada Gazette, Part I, (June 16, 2001), Vol. 135, No. 24 at 2054-5.
4. For example, low fat claims should be accompanied, where appropriate, by the statement: Not a low calorie food.
5. In particular, the additional year (beyond the standard two year implementation period) will give the meat industry sufficient opportunity to create accurate databases for the common cuts and species of products. The use of nutrition information in advertisements and industry web-site marketing information suggests much progress has already been made.
7. Under the current regulatory proposal, the calcium/vitamin D-osteoporosis claim would be permitted on foods that are high in added sugars or heart-disease-inducing saturated fat (such as ice-cream, milk shakes, high fat cheeses, and homogenized milk). High levels of saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease in the adults who might be drawn to the osteoporosis claims, thereby offsetting the benefits to bone health. Claims should be prohibited on these foods or, if not, then the fact that they are high in saturated or trans fat should be disclosed in the claim statement.
8. This claim raises two problems. First, it could be made about high sodium products, such as pickles, which can increase the risk of another diet-related disease. Second, it can appear on labels of some products (e.g., ketchup, relish, and fruit jams and jellies that must comply with compositional standards set out in Division 11 of the current Food and Drug Regulations) for which a customary and nutritionally desirable serving delivers only a very small amount of the beneficial ingredients.
9. For instance, a calcium/vitamin D-osteoporosis claim could appear on packages of homogenized milk, ice cream, or cheeses if the following modified claim statement were used: A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D, and regular physical activity, help to achieve strong bones and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis. A serving of this food contains (naming the percent)% of the recommended maximum daily intake of saturated fat. Adults who choose foods lower in saturated fat may reduce their risk of heart disease. [proposed modification bolded]
10. These are permitted under proposed paragraph B.01.311(2)(b).
11. Foods that are eligible to make more than one claim on labels (e.g., most fruits and vegetables) could either make all claims on each label or rotate the use of eligible claims. This approach is analogous to warning labels that appear on cigarette packages except that, in this case, all of the messages would be positive and would promote, rather than discourage, the sale of foods bearing the label statement(s).