Allergen labels allow some peace of mind

Canada is not a world leader on food labelling, but it’s close.

Many parents and school board bureaucrats across the country probably expressed a sigh of relief when Canada’s new food allergen labelling regulations, ann-ounced in February 2011, came into force Aug. 4.

The Canadian food industry was given 18 months to implement the new allergen labelling regulations, and for a while many food companies have been in compliance.

However, food allergens, gluten sources and sulphites now need to be included on the list of ingredients. This is welcome news for more than a million Canadians who suffer from food allergies.

Until now, access to information and clarity of meaning remained major challenges for consumers seeking information on ingredients contained in food products at points of sales.

Even if the information was available, studies show that many consumers could barely understand the list of ingredients.

For example, before stricter regulations were in place, eggs could have up to 17 different descriptions, 12 for milk and eight for peanuts. The new regulations compel food manufacturers to use plain and simple language when listing the allergens and gluten sources.

A recent Canadian study shows that 47 percent of respondents experienced an accidental allergic exposure because of inappropriate and ineffective labelling, failure to read or understand labels, and ignoring precautionary statements. Thankfully, these issues are properly addressed with the new regulations.

This has been in the works for awhile.

In 2008, regulations were instigated by then health minister Tony Clement. From there, months of consultation went into creating a regulatory framework that would make sense to regulators, industry pundits and consumers.

With its new labelling rules, Canada will soon join Australia and New Zealand as the only countries that require warning of allergens on food labels.

The United States and the European Union, two of Canada’s most important trading partners, are working on similar regulations.

These regulations can improve the quality of life of consumers, domestic and abroad.

Australia and New Zealand’s labelling policy is impressive because it encompasses a significant amount of metric standards such as comprehensive nutritional information on ingredients and additives.

While all countries are striving to improve the standard of health for their consumers, more effort should be made to develop internationally standardized labelling. In other words, efforts should be better co-ordinated.

Allergen labelling is of global, critical importance for consumers, and standardized labelling would promote consistency and clarity.

For obvious trading reasons, there is a need to narrow the labelling standard gap among countries. Governments around the world must continue to work with consumers and industry to find that balance of regulated and voluntary compliance of food labelling standards, while respecting economic realities within the food industry

Canada will likely not be recognized as a global offbeat trend setter in food labelling, but it will not be categorized as irresponsible either. New regulations are what Canadian consumers expect from its government.

Consumers will obviously have to remain vigilant when shopping for food products, but at least government is providing them with the information they need and understand to protect themselves and their loved ones, which is one of the most crucial tasks for any government.

Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean of the College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph.

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