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Smoke Without Fire: Making Sense of Food Regulations

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"They can’t be called dill pickles," the food and drug regulators insisted when some years ago my company applied to import European gherkins for sale in health food stores. "Dill pickles need to be made with vinegar," the regulations said.

“They can’t be called dill pickles,” the food and drug regulators insisted when some years ago my company applied to import European gherkins for sale in health food stores. “Dill pickles need to be made with vinegar,” the regulations said.

My imports were fermented with nothing but salt and spices, with no trace of vinegar. The fermentation process creates lactic acid, which is the healthier alternative to vinegar and nutritionally is needed to supply friendly bacteria for a healthy intestinal tract.

Whatever description I suggested would not fly with officials. My recipe was contrary to Canadian Food and Drug regulations and the only product description bureaucrats would allow for these gherkins was “lactic-fermented cucumbers.”

“Great guns,” I thought, “I’m going to have to change the labels on each jar to this less-than-attractive description.” How would that affect my efforts to market this new product? Of course, it didn’t work.

About the same time, other health food manufacturers wanted to introduce a healthier variety of ketchup sweetened with honey. No chance. The government restricted all ketchup products to the one and only recipe they had on their books, ketchup made with lots of refined white sugar. Today Heinz - caught up in the newest marketing fad, the low-carb diet - is offering ketchup with only 75-percent less sugar than traditional ketchup. To the bureaucrats that’s okay because the ketchup is still made with white sugar. But does the low-carbohydrate variety contribute to a healthier lifestyle? Don’t kid yourself. For Heinz it’s just another marketing ploy that food designers hope will increase sales.

In 1996, Health Canada proposed a change to food and drug regulations that would require cheese to be made from pasteurized milk. A rude awakening to Quebec cheese connoisseurs, the proposed regulation would remove varieties of Brie, Camembert, and other artisan cheeses from store shelves. The lawmakers, not being cheese makers, didn’t know that any harmful bacteria transferred from the raw milk would be destroyed during the cheese ripening process. Consumers revolted and factories were allowed to produce at least hard cheeses from unpasteurized milk so that the connoisseurs once again could savour the distinct flavours of raw-milk cheeses.

Now the Food Commission of the European Union has imposed new rules on food flavourings that call for “smoke without fire.” Can you imagine? For thousands of years, people everywhere have used their own chimneys or commercial smoking chambers to smoke and cure bacon, meat, and chicken. Depending on diverse methods of smoking, the taste of each smoked product varied considerably. Along coastlines throughout the world fishermen smoke salmon, herring, and eel, not only for flavour but also to preserve the fish.

That’s all going to end in the name of harmonization and standardization for consumer health protection. Soon there will be only one smoke flavour, artificially produced by a uniform condensation method in which fresh smoke is condensed in water and then purified. Because of the purification process, the use of smoke flavourings is considered less of a health concern than the traditional smoking process. But won’t everything taste the same?

I wonder who are the financial stakeholders that are pushing for and benefiting from this new legislation.

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