National Newswatch

An already acrimonious relationship between Health Canada and the food industry over possible changes to the Canada Food Guide has worsened following a claim by the Department that the industry supports proposed new warning labels on food products.

The dispute has been brewing for months over Health Canada’s proposal to revamp the Food Guide, which has drawn objections from farm organizations as well as the manufacturers over its alarmist approach to food group choices.

At an Oct. 3 meeting of the Commons agriculture committee, Carla Ventin, Vice President of Government Relations for Food and Consumer Products of Canada, which represents major food companies, told the MPs “Following a meeting on Sept. 18 with Health Canada and other stakeholders, we were very disappointed that the department communicated broadly in writing on Sept. 27 that we had arrived at an agreement on criteria for front of package labelling, which we had not. This was a clear misrepresentation of the record.”

She added later that “Not only was there no agreement of this nature, there was not even a process for arriving at such an agreement.  Other groups present and viewing on-line share this view.”

The industry is also concerned that “Health Canada’s criteria is so narrow, that it would actually exclude exploring labelling options adopted by our major trading partners. It’s important to get this right.”

The Department proposed requiring red stop signs on the front of foods to warn consumers about high sugar, fat and sodium content, she said.

When asked about her comments, the department replied in writing that Health Canada hosted the meeting “to discuss available evidence and options for a front-of-package symbol.

“Health Canada’s criteria for the proposed front-of-package labelling system are based on peer-reviewed published research findings, and allow for a multitude of options that will provide quick and easy guidance to consumers,” the reply said. “Health Canada’s objective for front-of-pack labelling is to support Canadians in making healthier choices with respect to foods that are high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat. That’s because Canadians consume too much of these nutrients, which increases their risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.”

At the Sept. 18 meeting, participants “did not provide any published research or evidence to support the use of different criteria from those proposed by Health Canada. Health Canada proposed a path forward, to which there were no objections registered from participants. After the meeting, the Department followed up with stakeholders to confirm proposed path forward. There will be further consultations on the proposed options in 2018.”

When told of the Health Canada comments, Ventin responded that the Department “did not provide published research or evidence. This is because there is no evidence to suggest that stop signs on food will improve public health outcomes or decrease chronic disease.

“We conducted our own consumer research that shows that consumers prefer that the government adopt a more informative approach to how people eat, rather than the proposed prescriptive and alarmist approach,” she said.

“We believe that Health Canada’s proposed warning labels represent a poor way to accomplish the intended public health goals. When a consumer sees a stop sign on their food package, it will send a message that the food on the store shelf is unsafe for consumption. Warning labels will cause food shoppers to feel undue anxiety rather than feel empowered and in control of healthy eating decisions.”

Farm groups have said that said the proposed Canada Food Guide and labelling changes could run counter to the development of the National Food Strategy by Agriculture Canada. They have repeatedly asked the government to get the two departments to collaborate to produce policies in lines with those of Canada’s major trading partners.

Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist and writes for domestic and international publications about agriculture, food and transportation issues. He’s also the author of two science fiction novels with more in the works.
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