At the beginning of February, CBC News wrote about an investigation undertaken by the TV show Marketplace, that uncovered that Maple Leaf Foods had been violating Canada’s laws and regulations concerning food labelling. Some processed meat from the company’s Natural Selections line was tested in a lab and found to contain an ingredient that had the same bio-chemical identity as a nitrite. Trouble was, the package indicated, loud and clear, that there were ‘no preservatives added’. A nitrite is most definitely a preservative.
One of the key pieces of legislation that governs food labelling in Canada is The Food and Drugs Act (FDA). Section 5(1) of the FDA states the following:
5. (1) No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.
It would appear that Maple Leaf, by clearly advertising on their packaging that there were no preservatives, then having preservatives in the form of nitrites in their product, broke the law. The logical question to ask is what kind of penalty did Maple Leaf receive from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the enforcement body when it comes to these matters? A fine, perhaps? Or a notice issued to the public to inform the consumer that a mistake had been made? Or an order that mandatory staff training take place to guard against similar mistakes?
Well, in terms of monitoring and enforcement, the CFIA uses what it calls a “risk-based approach to compliance management”. Meaning the priority issues when it comes to enforcing the law are the violations considered the riskiest to the public. On the scale of one to important, mislabelling your product is not that risky in the eyes of the CFIA. As such, Maple Leaf received no penalty. Importantly, the company did agree to remove the ‘no preservatives’ claim from the Natural Selections label following the Marketplace investigation – but they did so of their own volition. Congratulations aren’t really in order when the violation should never have occurred in the first place.
Certainly, food safety must remain a priority for the CFIA. But not enforcing the FDA consistently, and for every violation, effectively condones the behaviour of companies like Maple Leaf (and of course, it’s not the only one). Not to mention the fact that there is a significant element of safety embedded in the need to correctly label food products.
It has been reported that the CFIA is launching its own internal study of how the agency currently monitors food labelling, and what role it should be playing in consumer protection in this respect. And they continue to monitor the accuracy of food labelling via random tests in grocery stores, though resources are tight. A 2009 summary of activity concluded that inspectors visit major companies about once every three or four years.
So while labelling may rightfully take a backseat to food safety, the CFIA needs to play a more active role in the monitoring and enforcement of labelling laws. We clearly can’t assume that industry will play by the rules, and Canadian consumers have a right to know what is, and isn’t, in their food.