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Food Allergy: Labeling in Canada

Canada Readies New Food Label Rules

Soon, You Will Judge a Can by Its Cover

By Gwen Smith

They’ve been a long time coming, but coming they are. Health Canada says that new rules governing how manufacturers list allergens on the labels of packaged foods are entering the final stretch of regulatory acceptance this summer. [*See Editor's Note at end.] Provided all goes well with a last round of consultations, the new rules should take effect late this year.

Existing Canadian law already requires food makers to show ingredients on package labels, and the government has worked closely with industry to get good compliance on the specific listing of the 10 top allergy-causing foods – peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, sesame and sulphites (an additive). But the new rules will close important gaps. There have been, for instance, exemptions that allowed for certain “undeclared” or hidden ingredients – and such exceptions can be risky for people with life-threatening allergies.

When the new regulations pass, they will be part of the Food and Drugs Act and will carry the force of law. Two key elements of these regulations are: requiring that the 10 priority allergens be spelled out in plain English or French, and that major allergens in the “components” of a food – the ingredients of an ingredient – be declared on the label.

The plain language rule is similar to a key aspect of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in the United States. Soon, right across North America, allergic shoppers will no longer have to grapple with scientific terms such as “sodium caseinate” or “casein” if an ingredient is “milk” protein. Under the Canadian regulations, the label will either give the common name as the ingredient or show it directly following the technical term. So “albumin” or “lysozyme” won’t be listed without also saying “egg”; and there will be no more terse references to “spelt” or “kamut” if “wheat” is actually in the mix. Parents of peanut-allergic children will bid a welcome goodbye to “arachis oil” when “peanut” is the protein in question.

In addition, by requiring the “ingredients of ingredients” to be declared on labels, the new Canadian regulations will eliminate a number of exemptions in the existing guidelines. This will reduce the risk of exposure to allergens that are hidden within one of a food’s ingredients. (A good example would be Worstershire sauce when named as a component on the label of another food product. Worstershire sauce’s own ingredients may include anchovy, soy and wheat.)

Getting these regulations into place will represent a huge – if drawn-out – victory for allergy advocates. Told that the regulations were finally being submitted for the first phase of approval in June, Marion Zarkadas exclaimed: “Miracles will never cease.” Zarkadas is an adviser to the boards of the Canadian Celiac Association and the Allergy/Asthma Information Association, and also a retired policy officer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

She began pushing to get specific regulations to govern allergen labeling back in 1993. Then in 1999, Zarkadas and colleagues Fraser Scott, John Salminen and (allergist) Dr. Antony Ham Pong published a paper in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that served as the guiding document for Canada’s new regulations. Zarkadas considers the new regulations her life’s work, but has had to watch them languish since they were drafted shortly after the JACI paper was published. “If this goes through this year,” she says, “nobody in the whole world will be happier than me.”

“Canada raised the bar, the Zarkadas paper spelled out what needed to be done,” adds Marilyn Allen, a consultant to the food industry on allergens and a founder of Anaphylaxis Canada. “But now others have slipped under that bar, ahead of us and they beat us to the finish line,” she said, referring to the United States and European countries.

Samuel Ben Rejeb, the director of chemical safety for Health Canada’s Food Directorate, and the man who oversees the food allergen program, acknowledges that “it is unfortunate that we had that vision set in 1999 and here we’re here in 2006 and we’re still waiting for the regulations to come out.

He notes, though, that allergic consumers have had considerable labeling protection under Section 5 of the Food and Drugs Act. (It prohibits the labeling and packaging of any food in a manner that creates “an erroneous impression” of its composition and safety.) But with the new regulations, “rather than relying on interpretations of the Food and Drugs Act, we will be relying on a clear directive regulation.”

To become law, the proposed regulations are first published in Canada Gazette Part One. Ben Rejeb said this was to happen in June, after which would follow a 90-day consultation period. As there have already been years of discussion with the food industry, he is optimistic that any further changes can be made swiftly to get the new rules through Canada Gazette Part Two, and into law. Getting them passed, says Ben Rejeb, “is one of the highest priorities of the Food Directorate.”

Aside from the plain language and hidden ingredients changes, the rules will require that:

  • The plant or animal source of “hydrolized proteins” and “lecithin” be identified by its common name. (For instance, a new label term would be “hydrolyzed soy”.)
  • Foods such as margarines and starches, currently exempt from ingredient declarations (though some manufacturers add them), would have to list any of the top allergens that have been added during processing. (Certain margarinescontain soyabean oil or dairy; starch can contain wheat.)
  • Foods may only be labeled “gluten-free” if they do not contain wheat, including spelt and kamut, or oats, rye or triticale or their derivatives.
  • Alcoholic beverages will have to list sulphites when the sulphite content is greater than 10 parts per million (considered a threshhold for tolerance in sensitive individuals).

Ben Rejeb and Zarkadas agree that getting these regulations in place, however, is only part of an evolutionary mission to make packaged groceries safe for the increasing numbers of allergic consumers. Zarkadas notes that cross-contamination in manufacturing plants remains a related and difficult issue. She points to the use of flour: “If you have a plant where they’re using wheat flour, it’s almost impossible to have foods in that plant that don’t have a little bit of wheat contamination. It’s really tough; flour floats around.” Even giant exhaust fans aren’t always enough to do the job.

Ben Rejeb, an analytical chemist who has specialized in immuno-chemical-based techniques, says the cross-contamination issue is one of his department’s focuses, and that there is still much work to be done upgrading food manufacturing processes “to enable the best declaration and the best purity from the potential occurrence of undeclared allergens in food.” He says that along with better industry practices, this involves science as tests and clinical controls continue to improve.

Ben Rejeb stresses that there are two key principles guiding the Food Directorate’s work on food allergies: “to minimize the risk by reducing the uncertainty (e.g. improved labels) and also to maximize the choice” for the consumer. When it comes to the latter, the issue of “may contain” warnings looms large. Ben Rejeb says the directorate will work with industry so that these cautionary words are listed only as intended: to alert consumers to unavoidable cross-contamination during processing. Zarkadas says some food makers have taken to using these warnings liberally, to avoid possible lawsuits. She relates one conversation with “the head of a big international company who said they had ‘may contain’ statements on 95 per cent of their products knowing that none of those ingredients were added. ”Why would the company do so? She says it was merely a self-defence measure.

Clearly there are still issues ahead as the food industry comes to grips with the new reality of widespread incidence of food allergies and celiac disease. Ben Rejeb and his team are also working to educate that other great frontier: the restaurant and hospitality sector. Yet the food labeling regulations are a significant step in the right direction. They are a profound improvement on the status quo, and the joy Zarkadas anticipates when the regulations finally take effect will definitely be shared by an extended allergy community.

Editor’s Note: In December 2006, a government spokesman said the regulations had been held up getting to the Canada Gazette Part One process, but they were expected to be published “soon”.

Through 2007, there were further delays. In July, 2008, following a letter-writing campaign hosted at Allergicliving.com, the Conservative government announced it was (finally) moving the regulations forward. See our news article here.

See the labeling discussion about that campaign in our Talking Allergies Forum here.

Read about the new regs. at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s site.

Article first published in the Summer 2006 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
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© Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.

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