Truth in Labelling
These days there are endless streams of media reports on food labelling, each claiming the high road on truth. But what exactly is the “truth.” When a headline reads, “Canadian Food Labels to Become More Truthful,” as a recent media report on proposed front of packaging (FOP) regulation did, it gives the impression that labels are not truthful. In the case of FOP, nutrients like sugar, sodium and saturated fat are declared in the nutrition facts table (NFT). It’s just when they exceed 15 per cent of the daily value that they will be declared on the front panel and in the NFT, which is usually on another label panel. It’s making things easier for consumers, but it’s not making labelling more truthful.
It is important that industry and government take back some turf on truthful food labelling. Industry spends a considerable effort to ensure label information is accurate and compliant with regulations so that consumers have the best available information to make choices about the foods they purchase. Undermining confidence in food labelling can lead to consumers turning to inaccurate or misleading information. Following are some considerations to better understand the “truth” in labelling.
Everything appearing on a label, whether written or images, is subject to provisions within food legislation that governs misrepresentations. While it is truthful to say that governments do not explicitly regulate every representation, they do often provide guidance to ensure such representations remain within the guardrails of being truthful. That includes foods claimed as “natural” or made without preservatives.
Another issue is that factual information is not always truthful. For instance, it may be factual to state that a food does not contain added preservatives, but if that food is not permitted to contain added preservatives it would be misleading unless it was qualified with a statement noting that all such foods are not permitted to contain preservatives. This concept of a false uniqueness underpins many negative type claims.
The use of food additives and novel ingredients — including those that may be derived from genetically engineered sources — are highly regulated. New novel foods and food additives must first be evaluated for safety, and undergo rigorous scientific scrutiny by Health Canada (HC) before being accepted for sale here. Canadian regulations are designed to ensure all foods sold in Canada are safe — that’s a truth.
Manufacturers are prohibited from making nutrient content claims, except for those provided in the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations. That’s also a truth. While the use of permitted nutrient content claims are voluntary and can be used to promote a food, they are actually designed by HC to help consumers select foods that fit into their overall objectives of healthy eating. At the same time, food may not be represented as a drug, or otherwise for the treatment of diseases or disorders. Health claims permitted in other countries may also not be acceptable in Canada, so it’s important that international media reports are appreciated in a Canadian context.
Ingredient labelling is one of the most regulated parts of labelling. New regulations on ingredient labelling will provide a more consistent approach to how ingredients are presented on a label. Modernization is aimed at enhancing the presentation of meaningful information for consumers, but modernization should not be seen as implying that labels under former regulations were untruthful. Ingredient labelling a few decades ago may have been adequate at the time, but today there is a larger and more focused appetite for information, and modernization efforts are aimed at satisfying that as practically as possible.
Food labelling is complex, with a high degree of expected precision. However, not all food labels meet expectations. This is a concern as well to the many people in the food industry that work hard to ensure their foods are labelled properly. Modernization is also placing greater emphasis on manufacturers to manage compliance as part of their preventive controls. However, it is important that government agencies remain engaged in policy and enforcement. In contrast, the U.S. industry is often embattled with civil lawsuits over labelling representations, which to some degree is fostered by the appearance of a less than eager regulator. We are best to avoid this U.S. experience. Truth is a shared responsibility.