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Surprises in the Canadian Federal Budget

April 5, 2012

Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers his budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 29, 2012.
Photograph by: REUTERS/Chris Wattie , National Post

Finding out reliable information about food labelling is hard.  Okay, it isn’t just hard, for the average person it is nearly impossible.  Do you remember the great ‘Non-fat yogurt’ Seinfeld episode? (Season 5 Episode 7)

Elaine and Jerry ended up going to a lab and getting an analysis of some yogurt done for $45 or something.  Sure, they had to drive to New Jersey, but there was a lab nearby that would do the testing.  The thing is, I don’t think you can easily find labs who will test food products for you.  They don’t exist.  I tried to get Jillian Michaels diet pills tested against the claims of the ingredients and not one single lab would do it.  They all stated that they worked FOR the supplement industry and it would be bad business to do independent testing, even when independent testing was in their name!

I bet it is easier to get foods tested than it is supplements, but still, it certainly isn’t easy, and even with government oversight, we are pretty sure that most labels are already lying.  I recently found a clear error in the Kellogg’s label awhile back but that was after analyzing the label for something else-I actually spend awhile looking at labels for this blog.  The companies know that unless they are egregious in their claims, nobody is going to come after them, but even then, there are labelling controversies that come up all the time.  The government doesn’t do a lot about it, and aren’t nearly as vigilant as they could be, but still, companies lie about what is on the label all the time and only some of the time do they get caught.

Case in point:

Maple Leaf Foods and their Natural Selections prepackaged meats.  After the CBC chose to analyze the packaged meat that claimed to have ‘no added preservatives’, something interesting came to light.  The test came back positive for nitrites, the exact preservative that people are trying to avoid in deli meats that would make them choose the natural product.  Apparently Maple Leaf Foods adds ‘cultured celery extract’ to the meats which is apparently a natural source of nitrates:  “For all intents and purposes it is bio-chemically identical,” said nutrition expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.

According to CBC news, Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods was quoted as saying, “Nitrite is very misunderstood. Nitrite is actually part of a healthy, balanced diet, it’s in a variety of foods that we eat every day,” he said, adding that the company’s labels were developed in conjunction with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  There has been some suspicion that nitrites can cause cancer, but the evidence on this is equivocal.  Nitrites do occur in nature and they are in some foods, but I think it is quite a stretch to suggest that makes them part of a healthy and balanced diet.  Arsenic and Mercury are found in nature and in some foods, but I wouldn’t suggest that they are part of a healthy diet.  Despite his bizarre claim, again according to the CBC, “the company sent an email to Marketplace this week saying it would change its Natural Selections labels to include the fact that the products contain nitrite.”

That makes sense though because whether you believe that nitrites are carcinogens or not, the point is you were probably reaching for the natural product precisely because you believe that they are carcinogens and that this product doesn’t have any nitrates in it, which turns out to not be the case.  The labelling, in this instance, was specifically designed to mislead the consumer and there is little or no chance that without the CBC’s help, this would have ever come to light.

The fact that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was complicit in this (if Randy Huffman’s claim is indeed true) is doubly disturbing because they are the agency tasked with labelling standards and keeping the public informed.

Government’s Job

You see, that is government’s job.  People may argue about how much government is too much and what government should be doing, but keeping the public safe is definitely one of their jobs.  Food labelling is about the consumer having the proper information about what the food they eat contains.  It is about giving the consumer as much information as necessary so they can make intelligent decisions about food consumption.  It is really simple.  The government should make the standards and require companies selling into their marketplace (ie to the Canadian consumer) to comply with the standards or be punished for failing to do so.

Given the estimated costs of obesity associated diseases (strictly the financial costs, not even trying to measure the emotional costs), it would be a prudent financial decision for any government to assist the population in eating as healthful a diet as they choose.  It would be foolish in the extreme to assist companies in hiding ingredients, making false claims or allowing for improper labelling of products.  To actually monitor labels of food products is simply beyond the capacity of any consumer and the pressure from marketing companies to make unsubstantiated claims for products is massive.  This is a recipe for disaster.  Again, from the CBC article cited above:

Matthew Diamond, a partner with marketing company Hunter Straker, said health claims can often be key to a company’s sales but are hard to investigate when buyers are actually at store shelves.

“I think consumers are savvy, but when you get into that grocery environment, you don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “You’re staring at a shelf, you’re confused.”

More needs to be done to enforce labelling requirements and that responsibility falls on government regulators, Freedhoff said.

“The food industry, it’s like a teenager,” he said. “It’s going to push as hard as it can, as far as it can, until someone smacks them on the wrist.

“And unfortunately there’s nobody doing much in the way of wrist-smacking in this country.”

One Less Job for Government

Well, if there was nobody doing the wrist-smacking in a figurative sort of way when this report was filed on February 2nd, then there is literally nobody doing it now because the federal government has just removed that responsibility from its plate.  As part of a $56.1 million dollar cost saving strategy.  According to the Province newspaper:

“The government will change how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors and enforces non-health and non-safety food labelling regulations. The CFIA will introduce a web-based label verification tool that encourages consumers to bring validated concerns directly to companies and associations for resolution.”

Yes, you are reading that right.  You will get to complain to the company that labels the food about the food labels.  I don’t know how anyone said that with a straight face.  I have complained to companies about false claims and they hang up on me.  They never call back if they say they are going to, hell, they probably don’t even log the call anywhere.  I am probably talking to a phone service in India whose only job is to pretend to listen to my call.  The company isn’t going to do anything about my complaint and that is in a world where there is government oversight, where I can complain to a higher authority (although to tell you the truth, my current complaints haven’t received any more response than the ones to the companies).  Seriously, is this like complaining to Bernie Madoff that you aren’t getting your promised return on your investment?  Does the government think that would work?

In addition to this fiendishly clever plan to allow you to complain to the company directly, they are also planning some web-based label verification tool… again…seriously?!?!  That doesn’t even make sense.  How would a web-based tool work???  How could a web-based tool verify a label?  Here is there description:

“The CFIA will introduce a web-based label verification tool that encourages consumers to bring validated concerns directly to companies and associations for resolution.” (emphasis added by me).

How do you know what a validated concern is, as opposed to an unvalidated one.  Thankfully the government even included some examples of the kinds of things you might complain about:

Examples of “non-health and non-safety” food labelling rules include things such as grading of meat products and the net quantity of items.

Yep, you might want to complain to the company that there were only 11 eggs in your carton or the chips you bought weighed 2 grams too little.  I am betting that was a big issue about 100 years ago, but not so much now.  As for the grading of meat.  I ordered a steak at the restaurant at the Tulalip Casino, despite warnings from my brother that they didn’t use Grade A beef.  I figured how bad could it be given that the food at the casino’s finest restaurants is excellent and quite expensive and I figured this whole grading thing was a scam anyways.  It was horrible.  I had to send it back.  It tasted like it had been frozen and thawed out numerous times.  In any case, this is a rant for another time, but the manager had said that they didn’t use Grade A beef and although I wasn’t aware, this grading thing for beef is really important.  If the government isn’t going to be watching out for that one, things are going to suck for us meat eaters.

The Real Problem

The real problem here though is all of the health claims, ingredient claims and nutrient breakdowns.  These are already questionable, so what will they look like in the future.  We know the food companies would sell your health out for a penny (which ironically the government has promised to eliminate as part of this budget).  The government represents us, the consumers.  It is their job to make sure that the products sold to us are properly marketed and stand up to the claims they make, especially when we as consumers do not have the capacity to determine these things for ourselves.

What I want to know is how much money does the government generate from the food labelling program?  Do they have fines for failing to properly label a product?  Do they charge products a fee for getting a label review?  If not, why not?  Why would this program not pay for itself?  $50 some odd million is a lot of money and I understand why the government would want to trim this from its budget, but it is also a necessary function of government.  If you can’t (or shouldn’t) cut the program, can you make it pay for itself?  If you can, it is much cheaper for everyone involved, from government, to the consumer to the corporation to have one point of monitoring/reporting that is paid for by the companies selling the product.

After all, if government doesn’t monitor the food labels and the corporations begin to push their claims, then people will become wary and less likely to buy new products.  Food companies will have to create and pay different certification agencies to do the work that the government was doing and then these certification companies will end up competing against each other for the consumer trust.  Companies will either comply with the certification companies or not as they see fit, trying to create their own certification standards that support their product but refute the competitions (the health check symbol program is a perfect example of how wrong this can go), creating nothing but confusion.  Meanwhile consumers who are choosing to eat a more healthy diet will not be able to and we will see skyrocketing medical costs, in the end all paid for by the government.

It is all short sighted money savings, and even the most obtuse individual can see the long term money losses.  If the government would just push out its lens a little further than the next election and take its role of protecting the publics access to knowledge regarding OUR health, it would be obvious.  It has always been the case that business can not be allowed to monitor itself in our current capitalist society.  It isn’t their fault at all, as the system is designed to make them push as far as they can.  They could be found legally liable by their own shareholders if they do not.  We need to have someone to protect the public in this system and protect the corporations from going too far, and it is sad when that person, the government is actually out to protect the companies’ short term interests.  Companies will pollute the commons in the short term if they are allowed and it is in their long term interest to have someone monitoring the marketplace, not just the consumers.

Of course the biggest irony is the $115 million cuts to the CBC over the next three years, the same organization that brought to light the fast and loose labelling that Maple Leaf Foods was up to.

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