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Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk

No Regs for the Weary

[This article was posted Feb. 11, 2012. On Feb. 14, 2012, the Health Minister announced the regulations would be passed, with an exemption for beer makers.]

Like the guest who finally turns up for dinner just as you’re clearing the dessert plates, Canada’s breweries last month showed up to bellyache about the proposed gluten and allergen labeling regulations.

What’s amazing is that Health Canada and the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t just send this nervy latecomer home with a foil swan.

Canada has been a pioneer in “considering” label rules that would clearly identify food allergen and gluten in sources on packaged foods. Consultations on the issue began in earnest in 1996, the same year that Atlanta hosted the Olympic Summer Games; the year a young Alanis Morissette swept the Grammys.

In the 15 intervening years, all the consulting, revising, reviewing and re-revising by the food and beverage industry, distillers, bureaucrats, allergy groups, doctors and celiac associations was supposed to have finished.

In July 2008, Tony Clement, then our Health Minister, promised the regulations to millions of Canadians who live with food allergies and celiac disease. The label regulations were finally accepted by all stakeholders in February 2010; they were good to go. And they did complete one stage of the process.

There was just a second stage left to pass. But then the regulations sat, stalled at Treasury Board. The allergy and celiac communities began lobbying again in December with an open letter to the Prime Minister and an online write-in campaign.

Just as the current Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq wrote back promising the regulations would pass in “early 2011,” the brewers came to Ottawa, guns blazing.

“It was very disheartening to receive a letter from the Health Minister reaffirming her commitment to this issue only to learn a few days later from the Prime Minister’s Office that an exemption was being considered for the beer industry,” said Laurie Harada, Anaphylaxis Canada’s executive director.

No kidding. There was cooperation and sign-off from all the foodmakers, liquor makers, cake bakers, you name it – and now the brewers want another delay? The regulations were considered close to expiration date from neglect last winter. What will further delay do? If a spring election does occur, it will be back to the drawing board.

How do we lose this guest? Where is the foil? This party was meant to be a wrap.

In this community, we depend on clear labels for the basics of eating and drinking. We grow weary of being patient. We tire of avoiding food upon food in the grocery store because of mystery ingredients like “natural flavours,” “spices” or “hydrolyzed protein” (Is HP soy? wheat? corn? milk? Answer: any of the above). We just want to know what’s in our food and drink. And you know what? Even the non-allergic are beginning to demand the same.

The food allergy and celiac community remains resolved to seeing these regulations through despite the protracted battle to get the job done. What the beer companies and the prime ministerial advisers don’t seem to get is this simple fact: we need those labels; they are not optional.

Next page: The Next Steps