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Food Allergy

New Policy on “May Contain” Labels On Its Way

Health Canada has finally released the findings of its public consultation about precautionary labeling of allergens.

From 2009 to 2010, Health Canada consulted with key stakeholders, including the Canadian public, on policy options to improve the use of precautionary labeling (also known as “may contain” labelling) in identifying the potential presence of allergens in packaged foods. Currently, “may contain” labeling is used on a voluntary basis in Canada, as well as in many other countries, including the U.S.

The proposed options for improving the policy ranged from keeping “may contain” statements voluntary to making them mandatory by law.

The findings of the consultation:

  • None of the proposed options for the policy renewal reached a clear consensus among stakeholders. Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals voiced a preference for fully regulating “may contain” labels, whereas the food industry would prefer not to be required to use the precautionary labels.
  • The majority (65% of all participants) felt comfortable with the “mixed voluntary / regulatory approach.” This approach would mean that manufacturers and importers would not be required to use “may contain” labeling, but new laws would regulate the way the labels are used when a company chooses to use them.
  • The concerns expressed towards non-regulated approached were largely related to the potential for misinterpretation of the absence of precautionary statements (i.e. not knowing if safety has been assessed when no precautionary statement is present). That said, the non-regulated approaches were identified as less costly and their implementation was viewed as being achievable in a shorter period of time, as well as providing more flexibility to the food industry.
  • The main concerns expressed towards regulated approaches were related to the lack of allergen thresholds, the sense of false security that the mandatory nature of a measure could produce among individuals with food allergies, and the time and costs associated with the implementation of mandatory measures across the industry.  The main advantages identified for the regulated approaches were both the accountability of the food industry and the provision of a fair and common market being assured by imposing the same standards across Canada and for domestic and imported foods.
  • Participants said the biggest issues that concern them are:
    1) the overuse of allergen precautionary statements (for example, precautionary statements believed to be used when there is no real risk, for legal protection, etc.)
    2) consumer difficulty in interpreting the level of risk posed by a product using these statements (or example, when precautionary statements are absent, when they express different level of risks or because of too many different wordings, etc.).
  • 80% of respondents to the online consultation indicated that their single biggest issue is not knowing if safety has been assessed when no precautionary statement is present.

To read the full summary of Health Canada’s public consultations about precautionary food allergen labeling, click here.

posted September, 2011

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