Behind scenes, Health Canada experts clashed with minister’s views on food labels

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OTTAWA — Health Canada’s top nutrition experts are at odds over their minister’s laissez-faire approach to company-sponsored nutrition labels on the front of food packages, internal records suggest.

The schism, chronicled in documents released to Postmedia News under access to information, comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers options to develop a front-of-packaging (FOP) labelling system. It would replace the myriad of private programs developed by food manufacturers and retailers that designate certain foods as healthier options using their own criteria.

These include proprietary programs such as Kraft’s Sensible Solution, Nestle’s check mark system and Facts up Front, a recently launched voluntary program for food and beverage companies. In Canada, other examples include Loblaw’s Blue Menu, Safeway’s Eating Right and the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program.

The push for a government-regulated nutrition rating system on front of food packages got a big boost in the U.S. last October, when the Institute of Medicine released a report calling for corporate logos and symbols on the front of food packages to be scrapped in place of a single nutrition system that ranks products on a scale of zero to three based on their sugar, sodium and fat content. The report of the government science panel was commissioned by the FDA.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq immediately shot down the proposal, telling Postmedia News she thought it was “great” that companies have developed these proprietary programs. “Our government is not considering implementing a point system for food,” Aglukkaq added.

The categorical statement caught senior officials in Health Canada’s nutrition evaluation division off guard, who raised the issue of harmonizing labelling rules with the U.S., records show.

“I must say I was curious about who had done that response!,” a section head in Health Canada’s nutrition evaluation division wrote to colleagues after the chief of the nutrition regulations and standards division circulated Aglukkaq’s comments.

“Were we consulted at all? This seems like a rushed response,” added a research scientist in the nutrition research division.

In response to a separate note from the chief of the nutrition regulations and standards division about “our minister’s position on standardizing FOP labelling,” the section head of Health Canada’s nutrition labelling and claims unit raised Aglukkaq’s objections as a potential problem.

“Interesting, but the pressure will be high on the government to show that something as valuable will be offered to Canadians. We obviously need to discuss this one with USFDA,” the section head wrote. “Is it worth trying to see what kind of collaboration we want to see on this one with them?”

The senior issues manager in the director general’s office of Health Canada’s food directorate also raised the issue of how to tackle questions of “whether and how Canada’s policy would be harmonized with the U.S.’s” in light of Aglukkaq’s “position (which she made quite clear in the article.)”

Separately, a scientific evaluator in the nutrition evaluation division noted that “in the U.S., there is an expectation that the FDA develop an FOP system,” but “how this will formalize has yet to be determined.”

And just days after Aglukkaq’s statement on front-of-package labelling and the Institute of Medicine’s report, the food directorate prepared “talking points” for Aglukkaq for a November meeting on food labelling that painted a different picture.

In addition to defending Canada’s labelling regulations because they provide Canadians “the tools they need to make health food choices when they shop for groceries,” Aglukkaq said the rules were enhanced by proprietary front-of-package programs that “help give Canadians even more information about the food they purchase.”

However, the briefing said “guidance to help ensure these systems are not confusing to consumers is being considered.” In the appendix, the ministerial briefing also said “a need for consistency in the criteria and type of information has been identified” with front-of package proprietary programs.

Products qualifying for Kraft’s Sensible Solution stamp include Kool-Aid and Peek Freans Lifestyle Selections cookies, and the green checkmark appears on the front of Kit Kat and other Nestle chocolate bars to highlight “natural flavours.”

On Tuesday, FDA spokeswoman Tarama Ward confirmed the U.S. regulatory body “shares the goal of having a uniform front-of-pack nutrition label on all food and beverage products” and is “still currently exploring several possibilities.”

Ward added: “We plan to work through our regulatory channels and engage with consumers to see what approaches will be the most valuable and effective.”

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