Food Label Claims in Canada are Now the Consumer’s Responsibility

The Canadian government announced yesterday that it was going to shave its budget by getting out of the business of “policing” marketing claims on food labels. In other words, the government will no longer verify claims on food labels such as “low sodium,” “low fat,” and the health benefits of antioxidants. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been responsible for protecting consumers’ well-being by investigating suspicious food label claims since 1997.

Why Is the CFIA No Longer “Policing” Labels?

Cutting label “policing” from the CFIA’s list of responsibilities is projected to save the Canadian government around $56 million in the next fiscal year. The reason for saving this money? The CFIA is going to put a projected $51.2 million towards strengthening their Food Safety program. The government will increase inspections of meat processing plants. This is high on the government’s agenda, most likely due to the deadly listeriosis outbreak of 2008. This will extend Canada’s original three-year commitment to improving Canada’s meat inspection system.

So, who will be inspecting labels?

The government has left the responsibility of validating label calms to… drumroll… the consumers.  The CFIA has set up a web-based verification program where consumers can go to make claims by directly contacting companies and associations to reach a resolution.  To me, personally, this is a challenge on a few different levels.

  1. How comfortable would you feel calling out a major company on their claims? Not to say that consumers aren’t educated enough, but we all know how hard it is to not be deceived by claims on the labels. And how accessible are these food companies, really?
  2. Some companies may take advantage of this extra, federally unregulated, freedom. Not to say that companies purposely make false claims on their labels but they may be more confident about making claims knowing that the consumers are the only ones regulating them.
  3.   As a consumer, how comfortable would you feel knowing your country is expecting you to do all the work to decipher food labels?

What is the Response So Far?

The president of Canada’s Agricultural Union, Bob Kingston, thinks the new policy amounts to “a total farce.” Kingston raises a point in the defense of consumers with food-related allergies or medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease and diabetes. He says that these people are at great risk without label claim regulation, and that the new policy is “hanging them out to dry.” Yet, Kingston wasn’t satisfied with the CFIA’s previous policy either, saying that the Agricultural Union finds “food violations all over the place” and that the CFIA “walks away from enforcing clear violations.”

An investigation in 2011 by Postmedia news found similar flaws that Kingston is also unsatisfied with. The investigation found that, even after inspectors found what they knew or suspected to be misleading or fraudulent claims on labels, they could not promptly get the product off the market.

Why? Postmedia points to “Ottawa’s slow, muddied approach to policing food labels,” and also to hurdles from company lawyers.

One member of the inspection staff in British Columbia said, “Large companies seem to be ‘getting away’ with claims and bad labeling. In general, major companies are only visited on a three-to four year cycle due to resources – clearly not acceptable.” This quote dates back to 2009 when the summary was prepared.

It seems that the trustworthiness of food label claims in Canada is already out of hand, and looking to get worse.

My questions for you are:

  1. Would you trust the brands you buy from to provide legitimate label claims?
  2. As a consumer, are you responsible to judge food label claims?
  3. Do you have the time, feel comfortable enough, or even want to contact food companies yourself if you want to investigate a food label claim?
  4. Do you think the hurdles to get labels changed or improved would be any easier for you as a consumer than they would for a government agency?
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