The group was becoming restless. It was nearing the conclusion of an all-day meeting and, despite hours round the table, they were atnbsp;loggerheads.
The goal of this September Health Canada meeting was for government, health groups and the food industry to sit down together and narrow down a list of possible layouts for labels that government will make compulsory for food and beverages. Any packed food high in sugar, salt or saturated fat is going to need to be tagged asnbsp;such.
The authorities and health groups were in favour of a straightforward layout, modelled after a “stop” or “yield” sign. They brought up expert after expert who testified to the benefits of a clear, easy-to-understandnbsp;emblem.
However, the food and beverage industry reps weren’t having it. They termed it the “big, scary stop sign” and accused authorities of trying to “scare” Canadians. At exactly the exact same time, they argued that the designs were patronizing — too simplistic, rather than allowing for nuance ornbsp;circumstance.
By late afternoon, several of these in the area were looking visibly tired, andnbsp;annoyed.
“Frankly, I think taking an approach such as this is simply not giving Canadians the respect they deserve,” explained Lewis Retik, a lawyer hired by the food industry to attend the meeting. “They are notnbsp;idiots.”
As Mr. Retik continued to talk, one man who was listening with growing consternation — Ian Culbert, the head of the Canadian Public Health Association — had heard enough. Video of this assembly reveals Mr. Culbert shaking his head and grabbing the mic to interject. Soon, the two men were speaking over one another with raisednbsp;voices.
Everybody else just sat glum-faced,nbsp;viewing.
‘Another 30 years before we get thisnbsp;opportunity’
Health Canada’s announcement last year that it would implement these compulsory labels drew enthusiastic responses from health organizations. Over one-fifth of Canadians are obese, and obesity and diet-related chronic illness are estimated to cost the nation up to $7.1-billion annually. Meanwhile, cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke) are one of the top causes of death in the nation. Front-of-package labels, officials say, could help curbnbsp;this.
The new labels are supposed to clearly indicate to customers when a serving contains more than 15 percent of the daily value of sodium, sodium or saturated fat. Once implemented, the program would make Canada a leader in food labelling — and the only nation in North America mandating these kinds of medical “warning” labels onnbsp;meals.
However, as that September meeting exemplified, the program has its critics. Dozens of pages of e-mails, letters and briefing notes exchanged between authorities and the food industry, and obtained by The Globe and Mail, make sure that the uproar Health Canada has sparked. Those records, together with video of the September meeting and interviews with attendees, reveal the ferocious debate surrounding the labelling job — and the fierce lobbying against it from the foodnbsp;sector.
Considering that the Health Canada announcement, groups like the Canadian Beverage Association (whose customers include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo Inc.), and Food amp; Consumer Products of Canada (who hired Mr. Retik, and whose members include Campbell, General Mills and Dole) have put considerable pressure on Ottawa tonbsp;reevaluate.
They have submitted for consideration their particular proposals — layouts the health groups say are perplexing, and defeat the purpose of tags altogether. Health Canada has met with lots of the groups affected by the labelling program — such as industry and health groups. As promised last year from the authorities, all meetings and materials associated with those meetings have been madenbsp;people.
Now, using a draft regulation from Health Canada anticipated in the coming months, health associations are concerned. The department has yet to make public a detailed timeline. But over the last few months, it has narrowed down its list to just a couple of potentialnbsp;designs.
Despite positive signals up to now, the health groups fear that the business’s influence could still result in a softened strategy. For health groups, the election of the Liberal government in Ottawa (that came with a ton of fresh healthy-eating policy statements), gifts to them a once-in-a-lifetime prospect. They are worried the chance could go tonbsp;waste.
“If this is not done,” stated Manuel Arango, director of health policy in the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, “it might be another 30 years before we get this sort of anbsp;opportunity.”
‘The Chilean approach’
The information customers get from food packages now is largely restricted to the “Nutrition Facts” table on the back — a compulsory system set up in 2007. But there is often little conformity to the way this information isnbsp;introduced.
In the cereal aisle in a grocery store this week, three brands of granola, all made by the same company, were exhibited side-by-side. The nutrition facts table on the Vector granola recorded 290 calories, 14 grams of fat and 10 grams of sugar. This was based on a serving size of half a cup of cereal with no milk. The All-Bran granola right alongside it had just 200 calories, and 2.5 g of fat. But that advice was based on another serving size — two-thirds of a cup. And unlike Vector, there was no advice for the inclusion of milk. The Special K Nourish granola beside that had information based on yet another serving size — three-quarters of anbsp;cup.
Further complicating matters are the numerous labels manufacturers voluntarily placed on these products — advertising everything from protein amounts to “vitamins and minerals” to not having artificialnbsp;colouring.
This really is why Health Canada and wellness groups are so keen to have in place easier, more intuitivenbsp;labels.
“While present nutrition-labelling tools are extremely helpful to a lot of consumers,” Health Canada composed in its proposal, “some customers find the advice provided too complicated to comprehend andnbsp;use.”
At the September meeting, it was David Hammond who reacted to Mr. Retik’s “idiot”nbsp;remark.
Dr. Hammond is a professor of public health in the University of Waterloo and, during his career, has explored the effectiveness of warning labels on everything from food products to cigarette boxes into alcoholic-beverage containers. More than once that day, he referred to his expertise on tobacco warnings — a contrast that earned him the ire of the food groups round fromnbsp;him.
Dr. Hammond pulled the microphone. “I would concur, Canadians aren’t idiots,” he said. “But neither are they nutritionists andnbsp;dietitians.”
In his work, Dr. Hammond has analyzed consumers’ comprehension of dietary guidelines — how well they have the ability to interpret labels so as to assess the healthfulness of foods that are different. What he has found is that the vast majority of Canadians are not able to donbsp;either.
Generally speaking, he told the meeting attendees, just 24 percent of individuals have the ability to accurately identify their preferred daily calorienbsp;ingestion.
The other specialists around the table, including professors from the University of Toronto, University of Alberta and a representative from the Pan American Health Organization, attested to thenbsp;same.
They highlighted that the lower the socioeconomic status of a consumer — a group particularly vulnerable to obesity — the less likely they are to have the ability to browse the information on present foodnbsp;labels.
Quite simply, those who want the information the most are least equipped to getnbsp;it.
“I believe making this information easier for people to know isn’t treating them as idiots,” Dr. Hammond continued. “It is treating them as people that want to make positivenbsp;change”
The approach that the experts advocated in the September meeting — and that Health Canada seems keen on embracing — relies on Chile’s system established last year. With one of the highest obesity rates in the world, Chile passed a law requiring a shameful “stop sign” tag for virtually any food high in calories, saturated fat, processed sugar or sodium. A product deemed high in all four must take four stopnbsp;signals.
Following the Chilean system was set in place, a poll revealed more than 92 percent of respondents stated that the labels affected their conclusions. And the change has driven companies to reformulate food items to prevent the warningnbsp;labels.
This last point is a promising one for Health Canada. During this process, Health Canada officials and health organizations have highlighted their hopes that this may be true in Canada,nbsp;also.
‘Health Canada has lost its way on the obesitynbsp;difficulty’
Nine days after the September meeting in Ottawa, Pierre Sabourin, an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada, delivered a followup letter to all those who hadnbsp;attended.
In the letter, he thanked the attendees for their viewpoints and encouraged further submissions for new layouts. “Please be sure that the emblem fits inside the design principles that we agreed upon in the meeting,” henbsp;composed.
The answers werenbsp;scathing.
“In the attached letter, you claim that we agreed to design principles,” Christopher Kyte, then-president of Food Processors of Canada composed (such as the italics). “The meeting did not agree to anything. In actuality, that meeting was an exceptional demonstration that Health Canada has lost its way on the obesitynbsp;difficulty.”
(In an interview with The Globe, the FPC’s new president, Denise Allen, said the group doesn’t think there is enough evidence that labels can changenbsp;behavior.)
The Canadian Beverage Association wrote to express its “deepnbsp;worries.”
In a statement to The world, the CBA stated that it expects Health Canada will “explore the several models used internationally and to adopt a model similar to those of Canada’s important tradingnbsp;spouses.”
The Dairy Farmers of Canada wrote in its letter that they would encourage the front-of-package labelling proposal — but only if “nutritious” dairy products were exempted from thenbsp;principles.
Food amp; Consumer Products Canada also sent a note to Health Canada to express itsnbsp;displeasure.
In a meeting, FCPC senior vice-president of regulatory and public affairs Joslyn Higginson stated that the team supports the principle behind the labelling initiative, but does not believe there is enough evidence to warrant the Chilean approach. “We just don’t believe stop signs or warning signs belong on food,” Ms. Higginsonnbsp;stated.
She also emphasized the financial effect. Along with Health Canada, the sector has also put pressure on other departments, such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, whose mandate is to encourage the food industry. “It seems somewhat contradictory that the government will be placing warning signals on food at the time they are trying to grow investments at the agri-food industry,” shenbsp;stated.
Instead, the FCPC suggested a modified version of a design used in America. That design would be colour-coded (red, yellow or green), and show a great deal more information, including the calorie count, and certain amount of each nutrient (grams or milligrams of sugar, sodium or saturatednbsp;fat).
However, the layout, Dr. Hammond explained, is simply toonbsp;perplexing.
This “traffic light” system, he said, is littered and leaves too much up for interpretation. Under this system, a package of potato chips may have a red light for sodium but green lights for saturated fat and sugar. Some customers may interpret two green lights from three asnbsp;wholesome.
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents the major grocers, also suggested its own layout, using a magnifying glass intended to refer clients to the Nutrition Facts table in the back of the box. The RCC’s concern with the “stop” or “return” symbols suggested by Health Canada, it said in the meeting, was that they seemed “like a chemicalnbsp;warnin”
However, some companies wanted to distance themselves from the business groupsnbsp;altogether.
A representative from Nestlé Canada wrote to Health Canada immediately following the September meeting. “I just wanted to say I am a Little concerned about how our industry perspectives have been presented now, and I am a little bit ashamed,” composed Fiona Wallace, the Organization’s manager of scientific and regulatory affairs. ” … Some people are feeling verynbsp;frustrate”
Two weeks after the September meeting and each the backlash surrounding it, Health Canada hosted another meeting earlier this week, where government officials revealed that it has further narrowed down its list of possiblenbsp;layouts.
The “yield” sign was turned upside down and forced into a triangle — but remains among the government’s favoured choices. The “stop” signal has become red circles. Along with the magnifying-glass options remain on the table,nbsp;also.
Notably absent from the list were the very cluttered and confusing of the food industry’s designs. Health organizations are taking this as a positivenbsp;hint.
Afterward, Mr. Arango in the Heart and Stroke Foundation, stated his concerns about business lobbying have been somewhat alleviated — but only by anbsp;small.
“I understand how this works,” he said. “Along with the food and drink industry will notnbsp;cease.”
Health Canada, in response, said the department will continue to take into consideration all of the groups’ views. But it highlighted that its priority isnbsp;wellbeing.
“This is a public-health crisis, and lots of this can be very significantly associated with diet,” said Karen McIntyre, a director-general in Health Canada. “Everything we can do to turn that around is the way we’renbsp;shooting.”
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL ONnbsp;FOOD
Courtesy: The Globe And Mail