OTTAWA (June 12, 2002) - As 3,500 Canadians suffer from potentially life-threatening allergic
reactions to common food ingredients each year, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and
other health groups today urged Health Canada to implement the food label improvements that its own
officials recommended more than three years ago. The groups told Health Canada that those labels should
clearly disclose the presence of sulphites, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, seafood, wheat and other common
Current regulations allow companies to list some items in ingredient lists by non-specific class names
(such as seasoning, flavours, starch, and prepared meats). Often, components of those items are
common anaphylaxis-triggering allergens, or sources of gluten (such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, and triticale)
which can be toxic for people with celiac disease.
Health Canada deserves credit for efforts to eliminate regulatory loopholes that relieve food
companies from disclosing, on food labels, the presence of some common allergenic food components, said
Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator of CSPI. However, further delay in implementing these relatively straight
forward regulatory changes cant be justified.
An estimated 2% to 8% of children, and 1 to 2% of adults in Canada have immune-system-mediated
allergies to common foods. About a dozen of the estimated 3,500 annual anaphylactic reactions to food in
Canada result in death which can occur even if epinephrine is administered within minutes. It is estimated
that one in 250 Canadians is gluten intolerant (i.e., has celiac disease). For them, ingesting even small amounts
of wheat, barley, rye, etc. can cause malabsorption of nutrients and, with long term exposure, increase the risk
of a number of diseases including severe osteoporosis and some forms of cancer.
The only way to avoid the potentially life threatening effects is to completely avoid the offending foods even in trace amounts, said Jeffery.
The groups letter to Health Minister Anne McLellan also recommends that ingredient list format rules
be established much like those Health Canada proposed in 2001 for nutrition labels. Readable ingredient
lists are necessary to help allergy-sufferers and all consumers choose or avoid foods with particular ingredients with health implications (including food allergens, but also health-promoting
fruits, vegetables and whole grains). Current label rules permit ingredient lists to be printed in lettering as small
as 1.6 millimetres tall (0.8 mm eight tenths of one millimetre on small packages) and use poor colour contrast.
The submission offers Health Canada a model Ingredient Facts box that was designed by the award
winning design firm, Greenfield-Belser the firm contracted to design the Nutrition Facts box now in use on
food labels in the US for eight years. Food label space often occupied with contest entry forms, recipes, and
other marketing gimmicks should make way for clear, objective information for consumers, especially
information with important health implications, said Jeffery.
The proposed label changes have been in the works for a long time. Some food industry participants
in the policy formation process have been, at times, slow to recognize the importance of these issues and at
other times just plain obstructionist particularly in relation to matters concerning reporting sources of gluten
for those with celiac disease, said Marion Zarkadas, who spearheaded the proposal before she retired from
the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2000.
Health Canada should quickly enact the label rule changes, then turn its attention to ensuring that
employees in food production facilities are adequately trained in food hypersensitivities, and that allergy
prevention plans are built into existing food safety systems on production lines to reduce the risk of accidental
cross-contamination by allergenic ingredients, said Zarkadas. Last year, the CFIA issued 258 food recalls
concerning the presence of undeclared allergens.
The use of precautionary statements on food labels (like May contain nuts.) should only be used in
situations where best manufacturing practices cannot eliminate all risk of contamination, stated Mary Allen,
Interim CEO of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. Whenever the may contain warning appears
on a label, it eliminates a food option, not just for allergy-sufferers but also for their families, classmates, co-workers and friends who opt not to purchase that product, she said.