Chamber of Commerce backs agrifood in fight over costly new food labels

Existing nutrition facts box works, says StatsCan.

OTTAWA—The Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CCOC) has added its voice to the food industry’s opposition to proposed new Health Canada food labels as a costly job-killing move.

CCOC President Perrin Beatty and Denise Allen, President and CEO of Food Processors of Canada, sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlining their objections to the Front of Package Labelling Initiative (FOPL) of Health Canada.

“We are concerned that Health Canada is pressing ahead on FOPL policy in a manner that falls short of your commitment to ensure that government policy is evidence-based,” the letter said. “The result may be a less effective strategy that also causes inadvertent damage to the very economic growth your government is otherwise working so hard to support.

“Health Canada’s proposed go-it-alone approach to FOPL labelling will create a new non-tariff barrier to agrifood trade,” the letter said. “Instead, Canada should work with its international partners to develop a unified labelling system that will support better public health, both here in Canada and around the world.”

Other food processor groups and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) also oppose FOPL. Carla Ventin, Vice-President of Food Processors of Canada, said, “There are a variety of factors that should show the government it’s a good time to pause the initiative and consider the next step.”

The recent industry-led roundtable agrifood strategy report made a clear case for helping the agrifood sector remain internationally competitive so it can increase its export, she said. FOPL would be an added expense with no proven benefit to consumers who are trying to eat wisely.”

FOPL would add to the regulatory burden facing food companies in Canada that makes them less competitive with foreign operators, she said.

“From day one, we have been working very closely with Health Canada on this and other files as part of the Health Eating Strategy and look forward to further collaboration to improve the public health outcomes of Canadians,” she said.

Kathleen Sullivan, President and CEO of Food and Beverage Canada, said, “There is a lot of concern about the impact of FOPL initiative because it’s very new here and elsewhere. There are a lot of unknowns about it and the dairy industry has legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.” Among the concerns are a lot of questions about whether it is an effective way to educate consumers.

“Health Canada needs to have a real conversation with the food industry and health and diet experts about this proposal,” she said. “There is very real concern about whether FOPL is an effective way to educate consumers about food.”

FOPL could especially burdensome for small companies trying to grow their operations, she said.

Ron Bonnet, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said it wants to work with government to help consumers make informed, healthier food choices. “However, the evidence presented to date raises some fundamental questions as to the efficacy of FOPL in achieving these goals. For those reasons, Health Canada should undertake a comprehensive review of the evidence base, costs, and benefits associated with proposed front-of-package labelling regulations, within the context of the entire Healthy Eating Strategy, and consider more efficacious alternatives.”

He said the department should work “with industry in reviewing alternative approaches to help consumers make informed healthy-eating decisions.” That should include a comprehensive review of the evidence base, costs, and benefits associated with FOPL and consideration of more efficacious alternatives.

Evidence shows consumers understand the nutritional facts table labels on food products. FOPL represents “an alarmist, simplistic approach to diet-related diseases, whereas it’s well understood that healthy diets are best achieved through a whole-of-diet approach that considers balance and moderation that requires consideration of overall nutritional profiles. A strategic approach is certainly needed to tackle this complex issue, but it must be evidence-based and truly integrated, incorporating a range of tools that starts with education.”

The CCoC/FPC letter said the report from the Agri-Food Economic Strategy last month “recommended exploring alternative pathways to FOPL that leverages the agrifood sector’s experience reducing trans fats without resorting to strict labelling and warnings on food packages.

“We are deeply concerned by the lack of evidence currently underpinning this initiative,” the letter said. “We worry that Health Canada will create another regulatory hurdle for an already over-regulated industry and cause serious negative consequences for one of Canada’s most vital economic sectors.

“We encourage you to ensure that the ongoing development of the Healthy Eating Strategy honours your government’s commitment to respect evidence and engage in meaningful, open-minded consultations with stakeholders.

Food companies “have invested millions of dollars and contributed to Health Canada’s Nutrition Facts table (NFt) consumer education campaign that has already demonstrated positive results, the letter said. “Statistics Canada says that the NFt is the preferred source of nutritional information for Canadians.

“Research has not demonstrated an association between FOPL and a reduction of chronic disease. In fact, data emerging from Chile, the model for FOPL, shows its introduction has not translated into widespread changes to consumer purchasing behaviour and improved health outcomes.

“This is why it is crucial that the debate around the Healthy Eating Strategy, and its effectiveness, be grounded in science,” the letter said. “Our members give a priority to providing clear, fact-based nutrition information to Canadians and promoting healthy lifestyles in our workplaces and communities.”


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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