Product laws get a second look
Canada product safety laws are 50 years old. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces them. It could be time for an overhaul.
Is there an international congregation in your kitchen?
Imports from around the world steal my table space–everything from salad dressing to canned tuna. But with the safety of imported foodstuffs increasingly questioned, should we be paying more attention to our food, including so-called “Made in Canada” products that are legally allowed to contain foreign ingredients?
Yes, say consumer groups who have criticized Canada’s product-safety laws–the same laws that have allowed toys, foods, and drugs that have resulted in a rash of public recalls and health warnings.
Contaminated pet foods, toothpastes, and antibiotic-laced fish are just a few imported products that have made headlines over the past year.
“The main problem is that the laws are 50 years old,” says Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada. “They’re totally out of date.”
Health Canada sets standards related to the safety and nutrition of food sold in Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces them. The CFIA’s activities include verifying that imported food products meet Canadian requirements.
The onus lies on importers to ensure that foods don’t contain anything poisonous or harmful, and that they’re manufactured safely. Imports are supposed to be marked by country of origin and/or with the importer’s name.
Overall, Canada is the fifth-largest importer, at 2.8 percent, of world agriculture and agri-food imports. In 2006 imported food sales reached $22.4 billion, according to an Agri-Food 2007 report.
Back on my tabletop, a random sampling reveals carrots, avocado, apples, and peppers from Mexico and the US; dressings from Europe, Taiwan, and Japan; pasta sauces from the US; tuna products from Thailand; and a variety of canned and processed products from Canada, the US, and abroad.
Their appetizing diversity is overwhelming; Canadian products should be the easiest to pick out. Or not.
Legal but Misleading
Under Canadian law, ingredients might come from other countries, yet the product can have a “Made in Canada” or “Product of Canada” label if 51 percent of manufacturing and product costs were accrued in Canada.
During a phone call, an agent with the CFIA’s Fair Labelling Practices Program calls this law “tricky.” He gives the example of “Made in Canada” bread, in which only 12 percent of ingredients might be from Canada, and the other 39 percent to make up the 51 percent rule is the result of labour and packaging costs.
This is misleading, agrees Cran of the Consumers Association of Canada. What’s more, it prevents consumers from knowing when goods are truly Canadian.
Cran specifically mentions apple juice, where juice concentrate from overseas is shipped here, then mixed with water or Canadian juice and sold under a Canadian label. He says his association has searched across Canada and hasn’t found a box that they can be sure is truly Canadian.
“I don’t know if there’s a health issue,” he says. “If there was a health issue, it couldn’t be identified by Canadian consumers.”
Cran says their office receives many calls from people saying they’d be willing to pay more for products genuinely made–and sourced–in Canada.
Struggling Food, Farming Industries
Is a country that’s self-sufficient foodwise simply a pipe dream? For a start, it would require major support to reshape our farming, trade, and processing industries and to stop the increasing trend of companies using out-of-country facilities to avoid the higher manufacturing, labour, and food costs here.
More than 60 percent of food processing for Canadian companies was done in the US in 2003, where it’s cheaper.
At time of writing, the last Canadian canning factory east of the Rockies–CanGro–had just closed, a move expected to seriously impact hundreds of Niagara Peninsula farmers and suppliers.
McCain Foods, a big Canadian multinational food processor, has plants in about 20 countries.
But cheap is never cheap, says Mae Burrows, executive director of Labour Environmental Alliance Society (leas.ca).
She points out that factory conditions in other countries don’t always meet humanitarian or sanitation standards, let alone guarantee food safety.
Hence, we have the recent rash of food and goods recalls, which some might say is a product of our own making, pun intended.
So, what about my “Canadian” products?
Most food companies claim to do independent testing for quality control. Good news, because the CFIA doesn’t test much of what’s on the market.
Bob Kingston, the union vice president for CFIA inspectors and former food inspector told a CTV W-Five news journalist last fall that there are too few inspectors and that the system simply can’t keep up.
In 2007 the CFIA issued more than 120 food recalls, health hazards, and allergy alerts. Countries of origin weren’t specifically identified on the website, but data from the US Food and Drug Administration reveals that China’s products have led the pack since December 2007, followed by those from India, Mexico, Turkey, and the US.
If you’re concerned about particular products, call the CFIA at 1-800-442-2342.
In most cases, by the time the CFIA gets involved, foodstuffs are already on sale and being consumed.
Such was the case last fall when CTV’s W-Five visited a popular Toronto supermarket and found that “CFIA-tested” fish contained malachite green–a cancer-causing chemical–in farmed fish from China.
We do know that Canadian imports from countries other than the US and Mexico have more than doubled since 1990, and that the largest number of imports, expressed as percentages, are from the US (58), the European Union (15), Mexico (3.9), Brazil (2.8), Australia (2.1), and China (1.9).
China in particular has come under fire lately and has promised to clean up its manufacturing act.
All things considered, some phone calls about the imported foods on my table are in order.
Cloverleaf, representing dolphin-friendly tuna from Thailand, doesn’t return a phone call.
The soy sauce from Taiwan doesn’t list an importer’s name, let alone a phone number. The Japanese salad dressing hasa Tokyo address only, leaving international consumers with queries pretty much out of luck.
The American carrots and apples are organic, with certifying marks that could be traced to original source if desired.
Avocado and peppers from Mexico are policed by the CFIA’s pesticide residue testing program, which tests about 10,000 foreign and domestic samples every year, yet it has been criticized as too lenient (see sidebar).
Improved Consumer Safety
Last October, Prime Minster Harper announced that our food and product regulations, drafted mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, are getting an overhaul.
The new system is supposed to be built around preventing rather than reacting to safety issues, as it primarily works now.
Bigger penalties for offenders is another prong, as our highest penalty under the Food and Drugs Act is $5,000–embarrassingly low compared to other countries.
“Made in Canada” labelling policies will also be reviewed as part of the four-year process. At time of writing, industry consultations were taking place.
“We would rather see this done well and properly than fast,” says Cran of the Consumers Association of Canada. “We have several directors involved in committees, but it’s too early to give any indication of what’s happening.”
Consumers, meanwhile, aren’t waiting to make changes. Toxic imports are a greater concern than subprime investments from the US, according to 45 percent of respondents in an Alberta Index poll last February.
Also in February, Trader Joe’s, an American supermarket chain, announced they’re dropping some food sources from China, mostly single-ingredient imports such as garlic, spinach, ginger, and soy beans. So far, no other retailers have followed suit. A representative from giant retailer Whole Foods suggested customers buy local, organic lines if they’re concerned.
Back in Canada, organics retail sales hit $1 billion in 2006, a 28 percent increase over one year, according to a 2007 Agri-Food report.
After all those darned phone calls, the local, organically sourced products in my kitchen certainly provide peace of mind.
Although hardly a conclusive investigation, the exercise was a revelation about some of the issues in today’s complex global food system.
Alymer Whole Tomatoes turn out to be grown in Southern Ontario. During winter, some of Alymer’s products are sourced from other countries.
Western Family Fancy Cream Style Corn and All-purpose Flour are grown in Canada, a discovery that took an extra day to confirm with the supplier.
Bick’s hamburger relish’s main ingredient, cucumbers, is Canadian. If the crop is bad, they buy from the US or Mexico.
Northern Lights Foods Organic Wild Rice Pancake and Waffle Mix contains 100 percent Canadian ingredients.
The dairy in Olympic Dairy’s blueberry yogourt is from BC; the blueberry source, says a representative, is confidential, but yes, certified organic.
Del Monte’s Peaches in Fruit Juice are Ontario-grown.
Catelli Pizza Sauce, confusingly marked Heinz Company of Canada, is a product of the US made exclusively for a Canadian market. “All ingredients must meet our standards or they won’t be accepted,” says a company rep. “There’s not a concern about ingredients being imported.”
Canada's Pesticide Testing Fails the Grade
They come from all over the world–imported foods–and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) polices them.
The problem is that Canada ’s high allowable pesticide levels, or maximum residue levels (MRLs), do not adequately safeguard us from potential exposure to higher levels of chemicals when compared to residents of other industrialized nations.
In an assessment of the safety of 40 pesticide/food combinations, Canada ranked last after the European Union, Australia, the US, and the international guideline Codex.
The David Suzuki Foundation report, “The Food We Eat,” also noted that unlike other countries, Canada hasn’t set MRLs for many pesticides.
Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency is currently revisiting the issue.
Test Your Toys
Nothing prompts a smile faster than watching a child engrossed in play with a favourite toy…unless the toy is toxic.
More than 20 million toys (especially children’s jewelry) made in China have been recalled due to high levels of lead, an element that negatively affects brain development.
Healthycanadians.ca is a new website created by Health Canada to allow parents to search recalled food and children’s products.
Mae Burrows of the Labour Environmental Alliance Society (leas.ca) says one of the problems with Canada’s safety laws is that recalls are voluntary, not mandatory.
LEAS is urging “right-to-know” labelling, meaning that foods and products containing known toxins should have a specific, recognizable label. This kind of scheme would put the onus on industry to be accountable for their products, says Burrows.
Sixty-five percent of products bought in Canada are imports.
The toy issue falls under the federal government’s Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan. LEAS is one of several consumer groups who have so far participated in consultations.
“What we’ve heard is very encouraging,” says Burrows. “It appears Health Canada officials are looking toward writing regulations involving better labelling.”