What We Heard Report
Food Labelling Modernization Initiative Phase III
Engagement on Key Proposals to Modernize the Food Labelling System

Table of contents

Introduction

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) launched the Food Labelling Modernization (FLM) initiative in June 2013. A multi-phased engagement approach was used for this initiative. Feedback from Phase I engagement (2013-2014) helped to identify the key issues on the food labelling system. In the Phase II engagement (2015), we presented proposed options to modernize the system.

Based on what we heard during Phases I and II, the CFIA developed key proposals to modernize food labelling and carried out Phase III engagement from December 2016 to March 2017. This report is a summary of the stakeholder feedback to the Phase III engagement, and highlights the most common themes we heard. Additional comments that were less prevalent are also being considered by the CFIA, but may not be reflected in this report.

The CFIA and Health Canada share responsibility for food labelling in Canada. Health Canada establishes food labelling requirements related to health and safety, such as nutrition and allergen labelling. The CFIA administers non-health and safety labelling requirements such as those related to misrepresentation, composition, and origin. In addition, the CFIA enforces all federal food labelling requirements.

Concurrent to CFIA's Food Labelling Modernization initiative, Health Canada is also modernizing food labelling provisions under its mandate. While the CFIA and Health Canada have distinct roles in food labelling, the results of the modernization efforts of both departments will converge on Canadian food labels once in effect. In recognition of this, throughout Phase III engagement, joint Health Canada-CFIA sessions aimed at providing a comprehensive overview were held with stakeholders. Additionally, the CFIA and Health Canada recognize the need to coordinate modernization timelines to facilitate implementation.

The views expressed herein are those raised by the stakeholders who participated in FLM Phase III engagement activities and do not necessarily reflect those of the CFIA (the Agency) or the Government of Canada.

Background

The objective of the FLM initiative is a modern and innovative food labelling system within CFIA's responsibility, which responds to current and future challenges. It focuses on four key areas: regulations; service delivery; policy and program development; and roles, responsibilities and partnerships.

Phase III of the FLM initiative included proposals to change specific labelling requirements, modernize the regulatory framework, and address previous regulatory commitments. A summary of each proposal is provided at the beginning of each section of this report, and additional details can be found in the Phase III engagement discussion paper.

The proposals reflected previous feedback from a range of stakeholders, in particular consumers and industry. They aimed to improve the information available on food labels to enable informed purchasing decisions, provide consistency of rules across foods, align with international best practices and trading partners, and move toward a framework that is more flexible and facilitates innovation.

Phase III consultations used a combination of face-to-face discussions, webinars, and an online questionnaire. Over 2,500 stakeholders participated in these activities. The online questionnaire received 1,023 responses: 53% consumer and consumer associations, 23% industry and industry associations, 8% government and 16% others (e.g. health professionals, academia, etc.). In addition, the CFIA also considered comments on the proposed Safe Food for Canadians Regulations Canada Gazette I consultation relevant to FLM.

The statistics on the level of stakeholder support cited throughout this report are based on responses to the online questionnaire. The industry and consumer breakdowns were possible as stakeholders were asked to self-identify their affiliation. Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number. The percentage is based on the individual number of responses with no weighting applied to responses provided on behalf of a group or association. However, during the qualitative analysis and in determining the next steps, appropriate consideration of representation will be given to responses received from groups such as industry and consumer associations representing a number of members.

The CFIA also received feedback that was out of the scope of CFIA's mandate or of the FLM initiative. These comments are shared with the government departments responsible for the topic, or recorded for future CFIA consideration, as appropriate.

Summary of What We Heard

Overall, stakeholders supported modernizing the food labelling system, and welcomed the opportunity to provide comments and feedback to this initiative. The following is a high level summary of what we heard.

  • Consumers supported proposals that enhance their access to and understanding of the food labelling information that helps them make their food purchasing decisions.
  • Industry supported proposals that provide them with flexibility and allow innovation. They supported more outcome-based approaches, alignment with international standards and trading partners, and more streamlined regulations.
  • While a majority of stakeholders supported all of the proposals, the level of support varied. For all of the proposals, a number of considerations and suggestions were raised.
  • Alignment of the various ongoing labelling modernization initiatives is important to minimize impacts to industry. A longer transition period helps reduce cost of compliance.

Stream 1: Modernizing Regulations

1.1 Date marking

Proposal: The date marking proposal was to align with international requirements in the Codex General Standard for Labelling of Prepackaged Foods – PDF (67 kb) with respect to foods requiring date marking, include the year in date labelling, and provide additional format options for declaring the best before dates.

  • Overall, 94% of respondents to the online questionnaire indicated support or partial support for the date marking proposals. Among consumers: 72% expressed support, 24% partial support; among industry: 62% expressed support, 29% partial support.

In general, we heard that aligning with international standards under Codex Alimentarius is important. However, industry in particular requested more details on exemptions from date marking than are currently available in the Codex criteria. Some industry members indicated that certain foods which currently have an exemption from date marking should continue to have this exemption.

Many consumer comments indicated that there is currently confusion about the difference between expiry dates and best before dates. While stakeholders agreed with the proposal to require expiry dates when there is a safety concern, there were also comments that there would need to be criteria to clarify whether an expiry date or best before date would be appropriate for certain foods. As Health Canada is responsible for rules respecting expiry dates, related comments were shared for their consideration.

In general, respondents supported the inclusion of the year in date marking. However, there were comments that this may not be necessary for consumer clarity in all cases, such as for foods that are known to have a short shelf life, e.g. bread.

The CFIA received a range of comments on the format of the best before date, as follows:

  • Many respondents preferred a single consistent format for date marking on labels. Conversely, others welcome more flexibility in format options.
  • It is important that if dates are shown numerically, they are accompanied by explanatory descriptors such as "dd/mm/yy."
  • Several respondents from industry supported the use of the abbreviations BB/MA (for "best before/meilleur avant") when label space is limited.
  • Other terms, such as date of production or manufacture, were suggested in addition to or instead of a best before date.
  • Many consumers mentioned that improved legibility and consistent placement of date labelling is needed as this information is currently hard to find and read.
  • Some industry respondents highlighted the limitations of label space and equipment, particularly for dates that may be applied separately to packaging and vary from lot to lot.

Many stakeholders, from consumers to industry, suggested that more consumer education on how to use and understand date marks would be helpful, and could contribute to reducing food waste. Industry expressed interest in collaborating with government in this area.

1.2 Legibility and placement of information

Proposal: This item proposed to improve legibility in areas such as type height, use of upper and lower case letters, and contrast. It also proposed to improve prominence of the common name with respect to other information on the label.

  • Overall, 95% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 91% expressed support, 8% partial support; among industry: 68% support, 26% partial support.

Stakeholders supported the intent to improve the legibility of labelling information. There was variation in the feedback on the best way to accomplish this. Minimum type heights, sufficient contrast and prominence, and a mix of upper and lower case letters were well supported by consumers. We heard from many industry stakeholders that they support achieving legibility using outcome-based approaches, due to factors like the impact on label space, particularly for small packages. Comments were also received on the capability of some equipment, such as retail scales or ink jets, to accommodate mixed case letters or prescriptive contrast requirements, respectively.

While consumers supported increasing the prominence of the common name of the food, the CFIA also heard that minimum requirements for the size and prominence of the common name that are based on other information on the principal display panel present challenges for industry in terms of label space and design. Some industry respondents suggested adopting the same approach used for displaying the net quantity, where in the type size of the characters and numerals is based on the size of principal display surface of the package. Many stakeholders mentioned that it is important that all words of the common name are of equal prominence to avoid hiding terms such as "style," "flavoured."

1.3 Food company information

Proposal: This item proposed to require modern forms of contacting the company such as a telephone number, email address, or website. It also proposed to require the CFIA license holder to be the responsible party listed on the label.

  • Overall, 96% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 90% expressed support, 9% partial support; among industry: 71% support, 19% partial support.

Overall, stakeholders agreed with the proposal for food labels to provide more modern means for consumers to contact food companies. Consumers indicated a general preference to contact companies by telephone (preferably toll-free) or email. Industry generally preferred a website; if a website is used, we heard that it is important the site includes a contact link. There were many comments that a postal address is not useful to quickly communicate with companies about a product.

Stakeholders did not support the use of the CFIA license holder on the food label as the main contact for food information. There were a number of reasons, including that a single product may be supplied by multiple importer license holders and that there would be some exemptions from license requirements. We heard a strong preference to maintain the status quo of identifying the person/company responsible for the product on the label, whether this be the brand owner, importer, distributor, retailer or manufacturer.

1.4 Origin of imported food

Proposal: This item proposed to require "Product of (naming the country)" on all wholly imported food products, with the country of origin being where the last substantial transformation of the food occurred.

  • Overall, 92% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 72% expressed support, 22% partial support; among industry: 69% support, 15% partial support.

Most consumers and some industry respondents (in particular domestic manufacturers) expressed support for the proposal to require the country of origin to be declared on all wholly imported foods. However, a number of consumers indicated that the proposal does not go far enough and that they would like to be able to distinguish between country of processing (last substantial transformation) and the country of origin of the ingredients.

Many industry respondents articulated challenges with the proposal, in particular when multiple locations are used for processing or when products are sourced from different origins depending on factors such as seasonality, availability and pricing.

While consumers generally supported the intent to eliminate voluntarily added statements seen as ambiguous such as "packaged by," "manufactured by," and "prepared for," some industry respondents maintained that these terms provide useful information.

A few respondents commented on the current inconsistency in country of origin labelling across foods, including variable location and type size depending on the commodity.

Although the "Product of Canada" policy was out of scope of the FLM proposals, several industry members voiced the position that the way that country of origin is defined for "Product of Canada" should be consistent with the proposed definition for wholly imported foods (country of last substantial transformation).

1.5 Improving information on key ingredients emphasized through claims or pictures

Proposal: This item proposed to require the percentage of any ingredient highlighted through words or pictures on a food label or advertisement to be declared in the ingredient list, and to require the term "flavour" or "flavoured" on foods that highlight a characterizing ingredient that is not present but that contains the named flavour.

  • Overall, 94% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 89% expressed support, 9% partial support; among industry: 56% support, 26% partial support.

A majority of stakeholders expressed support for this proposal. Consumers showed very strong support, stating the approach would reduce deception, promote informed choice, and enable comparison of products. Industry support was most often from sectors representing primary producers of raw inputs.

Many industry members did not support this proposal. Key concerns raised included: revealing proprietary information, loss of flexibility in formulation, impacts to label space, and challenges with implementation (e.g. how to calculate the percentage). There were also a number of clarifications requested as to what would be considered highlighting or emphasis.

Some stakeholders supported closely aligning with Codex and other jurisdictions that use quantitative ingredient declaration (e.g. E.U., U.K., Australia). We heard suggestions to align with U.S. rules for fruit juices, as well as to only require a percentage for premium ingredients of high value. A number of exemptions were requested.

A strong majority of stakeholders (both industry and consumers) supported the proposal to require "flavour" or "flavoured" when the real ingredients are not present, in the same size and prominence as the term it qualifies (e.g. "strawberry flavoured yogurt" when no strawberries are present).

1.6 Improvements to the list of ingredients - class names

Proposal: The proposal was to incorporate by reference (IbR) the list of class names that currently resides in the Food and Drug Regulations, and to subsequently review the class names with the intent to harmonize with Codex and the U.S. where possible.

  • Overall, 90% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 66% expressed support, 22% partial support; among industry: 71% support, 20% partial support.

General support was received from all stakeholder groups to IbR the list of class names in order to modernize how these provisions are maintained.

Where there was lower support, it was largely driven by concerns on the use of class names in general rather than the proposal to IbR. The following main themes emerged from the feedback received:

  • Transparency: stakeholders, particularly consumers, wanted to be assured that ingredients are not hidden under class names.
  • Increased clarity: Stakeholders felt that class names need to be more clear and understandable (e.g. use plain language).
  • International alignment: Industry supported aligning class names in Canada with those used in Codex and with our international trading partners, including with the U.S.
  • Implementation challenges: stakeholders wanted to see broad consultations when class names are reviewed, and a reasonable transition period to implement changes to the class names.
  • Specific issues were raised with some class name e.g. vegetable oils, spices and seasonings, flavours, milk ingredients and modified milk ingredients, and various sugars.

1.7a) Food compositional standards

Proposal: This item proposed to IbR the food commodity standards in the Food and Drug Regulations and Safe Food for Canadians Regulations and to continue to explore, in collaboration with other organizations, options to maintain and modernize these standards.

  • Overall, 95% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 75% expressed support, 19% partial support; among industry: 83% support, 15% partial support.

There was broad stakeholder support to move the food compositional standards into an IbR document. Stakeholders agreed that current food compositional standards are outdated and expressed overall support to modernize them.

More specific feedback received fell under the following themes:

  • How standards will be managed in the future: There were a variety of view about the roles of government and industry with respect to the oversight of food compositional standards. Some stakeholders felt that the CFIA should focus on safety, and that the standards should be maintained by a third party, while others expressed concerns about the food industry having increased responsibility for food standards. Overall, stakeholders indicated the need for further consultations when the process of updating the standards gets underway.
  • Alignment with other standards: Stakeholders wanted standards to be better aligned and harmonized, between the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations and the Food and Drug Regulations, with international players (e.g. with Codex) and with provincial standards.
  • Stakeholder understanding: Many stakeholders do not know which foods are standardized vs. those that are considered unstandardized.
  • Need for standard: Some respondents requested new standards for specific foods (e.g. yogurt, peanut butter) while others felt that some or all of the standards are no longer needed.

1.7b) Modified standardized common names

Proposal: This item proposed to develop regulations for the use of modified standardized common names for foods, with clear criteria on when the name of a standardized food may be used and how to appropriately modify it.

  • Overall, 94% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 80% expressed support, 14% partial support; among industry: 76% support, 17% partial support.

We heard general support to modernize in this area and to align the rules for modified standardized common names with Codex and the U.S.

Stakeholders indicated the need for clear criteria and guidance regarding how to clearly indicate in the common name the manner in which a modified food differs from the standard. There were specific comments about the need to address common names currently in use that respondents found to be misleading, for example the use of the term "product" with no other modifiers (e.g. "sour cream product") for a food that does not meet the named standard.

Some participants expressed concerns about labels manipulating the size or location of modifying words in order to de-emphasize or hide this information. On the other hand, some industry respondents expressed concern that changes in this area could impact label space, for example, if modifiers become more descriptive.

In many cases, stakeholders indicated that this proposal was not well understood, and some felt there needs to be more consumer education on this topic.

1.8 Streamlining and removing unnecessary regulations

Proposal: This item proposed to maintain commodity-specific requirements in the regulations only when these are needed for food safety and health, to align with international standards, or to prevent fraud, and to deregulate all others unless industry or consumers request that they be maintained.

  • Overall, 88% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 63% expressed support, 20% partial support; among industry: 90% support, 8% partial support.

There was overall support from stakeholders to streamline commodity specific labelling requirements. There was also general agreement that regulations related to safety and health, preventing fraud, or aligning with international standards should be maintained. We heard from many respondents that streamlining labelling requirements would simplify the regulatory framework, remove duplication, eliminate outdated/unnecessary regulations, and facilitate innovation and trade.

Many stakeholders expressed interest in being consulted further on the review of potential requirements to be removed or modified, and to contribute to the analysis of the rationale or purpose of specific requirements.

The declaration of percentage milk fat was an example of a commodity specific labelling requirement provided in the CFIA's discussion document and questionnaire. Many respondents expressed interest in seeing this requirement maintained.

1.9 Standard container sizes

Proposal: This proposal was to remove the standard container size requirements for a number of products based on earlier consultations, and to move the remaining ones into an IbR document. It also proposed to include in this IbR document the standard container sizes currently covered by Test Market Authorizations (TMAs).

  • Overall, 89% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 65% expressed support, 20% partial support; among industry: 82% support, 13% partial support.

Overall, stakeholders supported the proposal to deregulate specific standard container size requirements and to IbR the remainder. We heard this would facilitate product development, innovation, flexibility and trade. There were also requests for certain products to be added to the list to be deregulated, such as juice.

A number of stakeholders supported the proposal that all standard container sizes currently allowed through TMAs be moved into the IbR list that is referenced in the regulations.

Some consumers expressed that standard container sizes help them compare similar products, while others indicated that there is no need for government regulation in this area and that unit pricing at the retail level is sufficient.

1.10 Test market authorizations

Proposal: This proposal was to refocus the use of test marketing authorizations on new foods and to seek input on how "new" is defined for this purpose.

  • Overall, 73% of stakeholders expressed support to restrict the use of test market authorizations to food that is new to Canada, while 27% supported using this for a food new to company. The level of support among consumers: 75% and 25% respectively; among industry: 63% and 37% respectively.

A majority of stakeholders supported the option to limit the use of test marketing authorizations to foods that are new to Canada. There were also respondents who supported the use of TMAs for foods that are new to a company.

With respect to the option to scope test marketing to foods that are new to Canada, there were some concerns that this could disrupt the market and introduce an unfair competitive advantage for large companies if only one regulated party were able to obtain a test marketing exemption to a given requirement.

Many consumers commented that they were surprised a test marketing mechanism exists to allow deviation from regulatory requirements and that if it is maintained it should be used sparingly.

We heard from many industry respondents that test marketing is important for product viability testing, development and innovation. Several stakeholder groups agreed that test market authorizations need to be managed differently, by moving away from a system of renewals, in favour of regulatory modernization. However, we were told that there is a need to improve the current regulatory framework, and process for allowing successful TMA products to remain in the market, before refocusing the use of TMAs.

Stream 2: New Approach for Truthful and Not Misleading Labelling

Proposal: This proposal was to realign roles with respect to truthful and not misleading labelling that reflects industry responsibilities for compliant labelling, the important role of consumers in making informed choices, and a risk-based CFIA enforcement approach.

  • Overall, 84% of stakeholders expressed support or partial support for this proposal in the online questionnaire. Among consumers: 61% expressed support, 22% partial support; among industry: 70% support, 19% partial support.

A majority of stakeholders supported the new risk-based model for managing truthful and not misleading labelling. Stakeholders indicated that the model is practical, innovative, reasonable, and that this approach could allow for claims to keep up with changes in the market. There were also comments that in adopting this approach, government should continue to maintain oversight and address marketplace fairness.

Several stakeholders agreed the CFIA should focus on high-risk areas of food labelling, such as health, safety and fraud, while facilitating a direct relationship between industry and consumers in the management of consumer values claims. Some suggested that low-risk claims could be managed either by the industry itself or by third party auditors or certifiers that would be responsible to manage complaints and provide standards and guidance.

Some stakeholders expressed support for information on consumer values claims to be provided through electronic means such as Quick Response (QR) codes or a "SmartLabel" icon. They suggested that this would allow more flexibility for consumers and industry, while also noting that demographics must be taken into consideration when contemplating electronic means of communication. Others pointed out that the use of the QR code has not proven to be as effective as anticipated in the U.S. market.

We also heard concerns related to the implementation of the model, which fell under the following main themes:

  • Consistency: Many questioned how the model would achieve a consistent approach regarding the meaning of claims or criteria for making claims.
  • Consumer role/empowerment: Some consumers and consumer associations thought they may not have the resources (e.g. time, influence, money, knowledge, education, access to information, etc.) to fulfill their role as part of this model. There were concerns that if this is the case, it could become "buyer beware" in the marketplace.
  • Industry role: Companies indicated they will need organizational resources and infrastructure in place to implement this model effectively.
  • Guidance/Education: Stakeholders stressed the role of government in providing guidance on how to avoid misleading claims.
  • Complaints: We heard many questions about the proposed role of industry to record and address consumer complaints, such as the length of time this information would need to be maintained. There were some comments that small and medium sized enterprises may have challenges addressing complaints and maintaining complaints records.
  • Monitoring and enforcement: Effective enforcement was mentioned as critical to the success of the model and to avoiding consumer deception when CFIA intervention is needed.

Other Considerations

Industry noted the volume of food regulatory modernization exercises occurring on the part of Health Canada and the CFIA. Some initiatives, such as Health Canada's nutrition labelling amendments, have been published in Canada Gazette Part II while others like the CFIA's FLM is not yet at the final regulatory stage. We heard there is a strong interest from industry to minimize the number of label changes and associated costs necessary to comply with any regulatory amendments. Many industry members asked for a five year transition period starting when the last amendments are finalized.

Out of scope issues

While out of scope, many stakeholders commented on the labelling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Comments were primarily about interest in seeing labelling of food products that are or contain GMOs, as well as about products labelled "non-GMO" when there is or is not a genetically modified counterpart.

There were also contributions relating to individual commodities that fell out of scope of the broader proposals such as specific requests to improve fish and seafood labelling by requiring production and harvest method.

Stakeholders also provided feedback on other topics such as allergen and nutrition labelling that fall under Health Canada's policy setting role. These were shared with Health Canada, as appropriate.

Next Steps

The CFIA intends to implement the FLM proposals, with some modifications, taking into consideration feedback received from stakeholders. This will include regulatory amendments, as well as new program design, guidance and communications on the approach to truthful and not misleading food labelling.

Any amendments to regulations will follow the Canada Gazette process, which includes a public consultation period. Timelines are available in the CFIA's Forward Regulatory Plan.

The CFIA will continue to work closely with Health Canada to achieve a coordinated approach to the implementation of food labelling initiatives.

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