The recent outcry of Alberta meat producers, and now the province of Alberta, over new requirements to label the front of a package of ground beef to indicate that it is high in fat, along with the media coverage and commentary to date, has largely ignored the rationale for such labels, the broader context and the lengthy political process which resulted in such labelling requirements.
What is the rationale? A headline in the Guardian newspaper in 2019 declared “Bad diets killing more people than tobacco” highlighting a study in the Lancet outlining the impact of improper nutrition on disease and morbidity. According to the study, over 11 million people died globally as a result of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardio-vascular diseases and diabetes, which are related to diet and food choices that resulted in poor nutrition.
As a result of this concern and the link between diet and health, organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have for years called for more efforts to educate and guide food consumers by developing new regulations including mandatory front-of-package (FOP) food labels to make it much easier for consumers to quickly identify healthier foods via simple interpretive labels that alert them up-front to foods which are high in sugar, salt or fat, all nutrients of concern in terms of health.
This goes above and beyond the complicated detailed nutrition facts on the back of packages which are difficult for consumers with limited time and nutrition literacy to use effectively. A number of countries with increasing levels of obesity responded by adopting regulations requiring FOP labels.
In 2016, the Liberal government tasked the minister of health and her department to implement the Healthy Eating Strategy including creating a new food guide for Canadians, front-of-package food labelling in relation to nutrients of concern, particularly salt, sugar and fat and developing legislation restricting advertising to children under 13 in relation to foods that meet certain criteria in terms of their salt, sugar and fat content.
In the case of the new food guide, Health Canada adopted the approach recommended by the WHO to avoid conflicts of interest and based regulations on relevant health and nutrition science. Thus, food producers and processors were largely excluded from having input on the new food guide. The result, a guide that reflected health and nutrition research and recommended a much more plant-based diet.
The meat and dairy industries and processed food companies were upset and sought to ensure their interests would be better protected in the other two elements of the strategy. Vigorous lobbying by processors and the food and hospitality industry helped kill the bill on advertising to children. In the case of FOP labelling, despite the efforts of Health Canada to follow the food guide model the food industry and producers, with the aid of Agriculture Canada, gained a foothold in the consultations on FOP labelling.
The result after three years of consultations was a set of proposed labels, largely watered down in comparison to labels used in countries like Chile or Mexico. Industry lobbying also delayed the implementation of such labels for a number of years. Proposed regulations have sat on the health minister’s desk since 2019 as the department’s priorities were overtaken by COVID. Now, cries of discrimination by the meat industry threaten to delay the implementation further.
Producers and the food industry were well aware of these regulations and used their lobbying power extensively in their development. Consumers do have a right to know and understand what they are eating. Ground beef is high in fat. Does that mean consumers will stop purchasing it? Likely not.
What it will mean is that they are aware of the fat content and thus may seek lower-fat alternatives or moderate their intake. For the food industry in general, the fact that the labels are mandatory means they cannot manipulate such labels and use them as a marketing tools, as they have in the past. We have all seen misleading labels such as “low in fat!” on a product loaded with sugar and salt.
To avoid the mandatory label, the food industry will be incentivized to reformulate products in a healthier direction. Thus, consumers will be better informed and able to make healthier choices, improving health, saving taxpayers the burden of treating diet-related health problems and most importantly saving and improving lives.
Elizabeth Smythe is a professor of political economy at Concordia University of Edmonton.