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Clarity coming to food labelling in Canada

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Canada is not a world leader on food labelling, but it's close.

Many parents and school board bureaucrats across the country will soon express a sigh of relief as Canada's new food allergen labelling regulations, announced back in February 2011, will come into force on Aug. 4.

The Canadian food industry was given those 18 months to implement the new allergen labelling regulations, and many food companies have been in compliance for a while.

Starting soon, however, food allergens, gluten sources and sulphites will need to be included on the list of ingredients. This is welcome news for more than one million Canadians who suffer from food allergies of one kind or another.

Until now, access to information and clarity of meaning remained major challenges for consumers seeking information on ingredients contained in food products at point of sales around the country. Even if the information was available, studies show many consumers could barely understand the list of ingredients.

For example, before stricter regulations were in place, eggs could have up to 17 different descriptions on the label of a food product, 12 for milk and peanuts could be identified in eight different ways.

The new regulations compel food manufacturers to use plain and simple language when listing the allergens and gluten sources.

A recent Canadian study shows 47 per cent of respondents experienced an accidental allergic exposure due to inappropriate and ineffective labelling, failure to read or understand labels and ignoring precautionary statements. Thankfully, these issues are properly addressed with the new regulations.

This has been in the works for a while. In 2008, regulations were instigated by then health minister Tony Clement.

From there, months of consultation went into creating a regulatory framework that would make sense to regulators, industry pundits and consumers.

With its new labelling rules, Canada will soon join Australia and New Zealand as the only countries that require warning of allergens on food labels. The United States and the EU, two of Canada's most important trading partners, are currently working on similar regulations.

When it comes to global food labelling leadership, Canada is not far behind; however, in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter. What really matters is what these regulations can do for the quality of life of consumers, domestic and abroad.

Australia and New Zealand's labelling policy is impressive, as it encompasses a significant amount of metric standards such as comprehensive nutritional information on ingredients and additives.

While all countries are striving to improve the standard of health for their consumers, more effort should be made to develop internationally standardized labelling standards; in other words, efforts should be better co-ordinated.

Allergen labelling is of global critical importance for consumers, and standardized labelling would promote consistency and clarity.

For obvious trading reasons, there is a need to narrow the labelling standard gap among countries. Governments around the world must continue to work with consumers and industry to find that balance of regulated and voluntary compliance of food labelling standards, while respecting economic realities within the food industry.

Canada will likely not be recognized as a global offbeat trendsetter in food labelling, but it will not be categorized as irresponsible either. New regulations around food allergens are what Canadian consumers expect from its government.

Canadian consumers will obviously have to remain vigilant when shopping for food products, but at least government is providing them with the information they need and understand to protect themselves and their loved ones, which is one of the most crucial tasks for any government.


Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean, college of management and economics, University of Guelph.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2012 A6

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