OTTAWA (March 8, 2000) -- A coalition of 17 health and citizens groups (including the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the National Federation of Pensioners and Senior Citizens) is urging Minister of Health Allan Rock to support a bill in Parliament requiring all food labels to list standardized nutrition information.
In a letter to Minister Rock, the Alliance for Food Label Reform, representing nearly two million Canadians, criticized Health Canada for repeatedly failing to meet self-imposed deadlines to issue nutrition labelling policy recommendations. Health Canada commenced a formal consultation on the subject in February 1998 but has yet to signal whether it will push ahead with mandatory labelling rules despite overwhelming public support.
Nearly all comments to Health Canada from 140 non-profit health groups, consumer associations, and provincial and municipal governments supported mandatory nutrition labelling rules. Almost half of the food industry organizations addressing the issue either supported, or did not oppose, a mandatory program. A 1999 public opinion poll commissioned for Health Canada found that an estimated 93 per cent of Canadians believe that nutrition information should be required on all or most foods.
"The broad agreement among stakeholders ( including many members of the food industry) for mandatory nutrition labelling calls for prompt action by Health Canada on this vital public health matter. The government should support amendments to the Food and Drugs Act to require complete nutrition labelling on all foods. A legislative amendment would give this important public health measure the stature it deserves and would provide Health Canada with a mandate to issue and finalize regulations," said Bill Jeffery, L.LB., public policy analyst with the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which organized the Alliance.
The Alliance has been working with Liberal MP Tom Wappel to get action from the House of Commons. In December 1999, Mr. Wappel obtained endorsements from 103 MPs from all five federal political parties for his petition to fast-track his bill through the Parliamentary approval process.
Mr. Wappel's petition (subject to a technical review of the bill by an all-party House Committee) will ensure that Bill C-319 comes before the House for a debate and vote in the coming weeks. Only seven of the 248 Private Members Bills introduced in this session have been supported by such a petition.
Presently, nutrition labelling is voluntary. Manufacturers do not have to disclose nutrition information unless a product makes a nutrition claim. If a claim is made, Health Canada requires manufacturers to disclose only limited information on one or more selected nutrients. The Alliance urged Health Canada to require manufacturers to list, on all foods, the amounts of calories, fat, saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, refined sugars, fibre, calcium, iron, folacin and other key nutrients, together with information indicating whether a serving of the food is high or low in such nutrients.
"About half of all foods provide no nutrition information at all. Those that do, often only provide consumers with the good news about vitamin content while failing to reveal the bad news about fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar content. Public health priorities, not manufacturers' marketing considerations, should govern when and how nutrition information is listed on labels," said Jeffery.
"Physicians, nutritionists, and public health authorities agree that Canadians should consume less fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium and more fibre, calcium, iron, and other nutrients. But how can we put that advice into practice if there are no rules requiring companies to provide that information on labels?" said Dr. Claude Renaud of the College of Family Physicians of Canada.
"Health Canada should stop the misleading use of nutrition information for marketing purposes and, instead, require standardized nutrition labelling for all foods so consumers can improve their diets and reduce their risks of heart disease and cancer," stated Alliance member Nathalie St. Pierre of Action Réseau Consommateur. "Two million Canadians have spoken and they are telling the government. 'It's time for nutrition labelling on all foods.'" she added.
Mandatory nutrition labelling laws have been in effect in the United States since 1994 where nearly 98% of packaged food labels now provide comprehensive, standardized nutrition information. Surveys show that most Americans read the information and many make improvements to their diets.
The Alliance urges consumers to call or write their federal Members of Parliament and ask them to support Mr. Wappel's Bill C-319, An Act to Amend the Food and Drugs Act (nutrition information on foods), to require nutrition information on all food labels. Consumers can call Reference Canada for their MP's contact information at 1-800-622-6232. In addition, consumers can write to Minister of Health Rock at: House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6, FAX: (613) 947-4276, E-MAIL: Rock.A@parl.gc.ca