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NEWS: Around the Arctic October 24, 2011 - 2:45 pm

Aglukkaq rejects suggestions for new food labelling

Consumers in Canada already have "the tools they need to make healthy food choices"


Postmedia News

OTTAWA — Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is defending the way companies label their food products after a U.S. government science panel concluded the labels confuse consumers and should be scrapped.

The Institute of Medicine’s report, developed at the request of the U.S. Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called last week for a “fundamental shift” in the way companies are allowed to present certain nutrition information on the front of food packages.

The key recommendation — to eliminate proprietary front-of-package food labelling programs developed by food manufacturers and retailers and replace them with a single nutrition-rating system regulated by the FDA — has been shot down by Aglukkaq.

Her department has a special team tasked with working to harmonize the front-of-pack food policies of Canada and the U.S., where the proposal is now under review.

Aglukkaq’s swift reaction, the latest salvo in a high-stakes battle over how nutritional facts should be highlighted on the front of food packages, triggered a new wave of criticism Friday from public-health advocates complaining about the federal government’s “dismissive approach” to expert advice on combating diet-related diseases.

At issue is the future of proprietary front-of-package food labelling symbols that designate certain foods as healthier choices. These include Kraft’s Sensible Solution program and Nestle’s checkmark program. Products qualifying for the Sensible Solution stamp include Kool-Aid and Peek Freans dark chocolate cookies, and the green checkmark appears on the front of Kit Kat and other Nestle chocolate bars to highlight “natural flavours.”

Other proprietary programs in Canada include the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program, the Facts Up Front panel on major food brands, and the Guiding Stars program, rolling out at Loblaws stores.

“The time has come for a fundamental shift in the way information about healthfulness of foods is presented on the front of food packages,” the science panel’s report concluded.

“Ultimately, a new front-of-package system that helps both simplify and clarify the information provided about foods could help bring to an end the confusion that many people have about food choices — resulting in more informed and healthier decisions.”

Aglukkaq immediately dismissed the proposal, saying consumers in Canada already have “the tools they need to make healthy food choices when they shop for groceries. I think it’s great that organizations such as Loblaws and the Heart and Stroke Foundation have developed systems to help give Canadians even more information about the food they purchase.”

She added: “Our government is not considering implementing a point system for food.”

Consumer advocates were quick to attack Aglukkaq’s position.

The Institute of Medicine’s report “identified real problems with the nutritional value of the food supply and the way many companies use self-serving faux-health schemes to draw consumers toward their products,” Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said Friday.

“If the minister doesn’t even look askance at the likes of Kraft when it qualifies its own Kool-Aid for a ‘Sensible Solution’ label, it is hard to take seriously any of her department’s pronouncements on nutrition.”

Like Jeffery, Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based doctor specializing in the non-surgical treatment of obesity, said this is the latest example of the government shunning the advice of Health Canada’s own experts.

“The Sodium Working Group specifically states we should be adopting the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations on front-of-package labelling requirements,” said Freedhoff, who also highlighted the call to regulate trans fats by Health Canada’s Trans Fat Task Force.

“They’re just ignoring all of these recommendations. It just plays into the fact that at the end of the day, Health Canada cares a great deal more about the food industry than it does about the health of Canadians,” said Freedhoff.

If the FDA accepts the institute’s proposal, all nutrition symbols currently used on the front of packaging in the U.S. would be scrapped.

In their place, a government-regulated program would list the number of calories per serving and display zero to three checkmarks or stars on the front of every food and beverage product, depending on the levels of “nutrients of concern” — saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.

Any product that contained levels above the threshold for any of these nutrients would be ineligible for any star or checkmark.

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