OTTAWA (March 25, 2002) The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit consumer health-advocacy organization, is objecting to a proposal by Health Canada that would permit food companies to make brand-specific health claims. Public comments on the governments proposal will be accepted until the end of this month.
The governments proposal would allow any company to submit a secret application for permission to claim that a particular brand-name food can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Those applications could be based on confidential company-funded research that had not been subjected to scientific peer review. In September 2000, twenty-four consumer organizations, provincial and municipal health departments, and health groups, raised fundamental concerns to Health Canada about taking such action.
Brand-specific claims could mislead consumers into believing that certain brands of processed foods have unique health benefits not available from essentially identical products sold by other companies, stated Bill Jeffery, CSPI National Coordinator.
Last year, Health Canada proposed to allow food companies to make five so called generic health claims, such as A healthy diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of some types of cancer and A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Those proposed generic claims were developed after a public consultation process and when finalized, can appear on labels of all eligible food products. That proposal was generally supported by CSPI.
Plainly, food manufacturers are itching to use brand-specific claims to flog their wares as magic bullets to fight diet-related diseases, but the governments system for approving generic health claims already provides the industry with a sound mechanism to market products on the basis of health, said Jeffery.
This proposal would sanction labelling claims based on secret evidence. Public health experts, physicians, and nutritionists would not be able to comment on the claims before they are finalized, Jeffery said.
Health Canada devoted fewer than four pages of analysis in public consultation documents to the brand-specific health claim concept since it was first announced in November 1998. The government also failed to provide any examples of potential claims that might be approved and has provided no evidence that the proposed brand-specific scheme will benefit the publics health.
A Federal Court trial decision affirmed by the Federal Court of Appeal, requiring foods bearing health claims to be regulated as drugs, calls for strict regulation of health marketing claims. The Court stated:
Parliament has legislated that persons suffering from particular ailments and
relying on products to alleviate those ailments must be assured that their reliance
is not misplaced.
The system proposed by Health Canada for brand-specific claims, unlike the system for the approval of generic claims, is closed to the public and not consistent with the spirit of the Courts decision, Jeffery said.
Individuals and organizations with an interest in health and nutrition policy can provide comments to Health Canada by March 31st to:
Product Specific Authorization of Health Claims for Foods
Nutrition Evaluation Division, Health Canada
Banting Research Centre
Ross Ave., PL 2203A
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0L2