It has been nearly six years since Health Canada’s 2016 announcement of its intention to propose mandatory front-of-package (FOP) labelling for foods deemed to be “high in” sodium, sugars or saturated fat. There was some action on the intention in 2018 with the publication of a proposed regulation and consultation. Then just as the Prime Minister issued a mandate letter in December 2019 directing the Minister of Health to establish the FOP labelling, the pandemic took hold, putting much food regulation on the figurative back burner.
In 2021, the initiative took a further hit, with Health Canada renaming its initiative as Food Product Innovation and postponing elements of the Food Labelling Modernization initiative “that would result in mandatory label changes [to] be pursued in a future regulatory package.” Following the fall federal election, the Prime Minister issued a new mandate letter to Minister of Health with very clear instructions to finalize the FOP labelling.
While we fully expect the regulation to move forward this year, both regulatory questions and stakeholder controversy remain.
The basis of the proposed regulation is that prepackaged foods with 15% or more of the DV for sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat would be required to include “high in” labeling on the front of the package, as denoted by a specified symbol(s). Exactly what the symbol(s) would be is still in question, as Health Canada had four options under consideration (as shown above).
- Foods that exceed a predetermined threshold for sodium, sugars, or saturated fat would be required to place a symbol on the principal display panel to indicate that the food is high in that nutrient(s).
- The proposed thresholds for a “high in” FOP label for prepackaged foods represent 15% of the DV for sodium, sugars, and saturated fat.
- For sugars, the FOP label would apply to foods containing free sugars, including fruit juice.
- The thresholds for prepackaged meals and combination dishes would represent 30% of the DV because they are generally consumed as a meal, or a major part of a meal that contributes a higher proportion of calories and nutrients than individual foods.
- Oils and oil-based derivatives (e.g., margarines and salad dressings) with less than 30% of total fat as saturated and trans-fat would be exempt to that “healthy” oils will not require FOP labelling.
The goal of FOP labelling is to provide consumers with more visible, comprehensible labeling of foods that are high in nutrients of public health concern due to excessive intake, with the new “quick and easy guidance” labelling intended to encourage consumers to make informed choices about foods in relation to sodium, sugars and saturated fat; and encourage the availability of foods lower in these nutrients to reduce health risks.
But it is that very intention that has been causing industry stakeholders to voice objection ever since the first announcement of the proposed labelling and all the while that regulation has been inching forward. That is, certain industry segments are concerned that the label will negatively impact sales based on a single nutrient. For example, as stated by the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, “ground beef will carry a FOP label, while less nutritional items like diet soda won’t. It’s concerning that this label could lead consumers to believe that ground beef is unhealthy based on one nutrient.” Additionally, many farmers, and even some medical personnel, are concerned that the labelling will “stigmatize and discourage people from eating meat and dairy products.
On the other hand, some consumer groups – and other medical personnel – see the proposed labelling as providing a “valuable tool for rushed shoppers, as well as those with low literacy skills” that is better than current “hard-to-read and understand nutrition facts tables on the backs or even bottoms of current packages.”
According to Statista, in 2020 about 28% of Canadian adults 18 and over were obese and 36% overweight; this equates to about 8 million obese adults and about 10 million overweight. The percent of obese/overweight adolescents, ages 12-17, is also of concern with 23% overweight or obese – close to a half million. And these numbers are projected to rise.
When this is added to Health Canada’s Health Eating Strategy intended to improve the food environment to make it easier for Canadians to make the healthier choice, there’s little doubt that the FOP labelling will move forward – and food manufacturers need to be prepared. While some products, such as ground beef and sugary snacks, are what they are and will need to plan to bear the label, manufacturers should begin to look at other products to determine if reformulating could reduce sodium, sugars or saturated fat without significant impact on the product.
Whichever direction you will need to take your product or your labelling, TAG Canada has the experience and expertise to help. Give us a call.