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Are food politics defeating Canada’s healthy eating strategy?

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

It’s been a tough few months for the Trudeau government’s signature healthy eating strategy — a series of legislative initiatives aimed at improving public health through better food choices.

The first casualty was the law to limit advertising of unhealthy food to kids. It died on the Senate order paper last month after heavy last-minute lobbying from industry.

Now another key part of the strategy appears headed for a cliff. Time is running out for proposed new rules that would require symbols on the front of food packages to alert consumers when a food product is high in salt, sugar or saturated fat.

“It’s a big concern for us that the two key pillars from the healthy eating strategy haven’t been completed,” said Manuel Arango, director of policy advocacy and engagement with Heart and Stroke.

I think the issue is heavy industry lobbying and, as a result, political will.​– Manuel Arango, of Heart and Stroke

His organization is one of the groups in the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, which last month sent a letter urging the federal government to finalize the front-of-packaging labelling rules.

What is taking so long?

“I think the issue is heavy industry lobbying and, as a result, political will,” said Arango. “The only thing we can surmise is the breadth and extent of the lobbying from the food and beverage processors has caused this delay.”

Canada’s Food Guide still under fire

At this point, the Canada Food Guide is the only major part of the Trudeau government’s ambitious food policy promises to be implemented. The food guide lacks any legislative force, but it is an influential public policy document for schools, hospitals and other facilities.

Yet it’s clear that it’s still a political flash point. 

This week, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told the Dairy Farmers of Canada — which objected to the Canada Food Guide’s reduced emphasis on dairy products — that if he wins the upcoming election, he would revise the guide.

The prime minister quickly hit back.

Canada’s food policy got political this week as leaders trade barbs over the country’s new food guide. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

It’s evidence that food policy is a deeply political issue in Canada. 

There’s more proof here, in a three-year public database listing more than 300 meetings and correspondence between Health Canada and the various stakeholders jostling for influence as bureaucrats drafted the new laws around the healthy eating strategy.

Mary L’Abbé, a nutrition expert at the University of Toronto, searched that database last month to see who was talking to the government about front-of-label packaging.

“Three-quarters of the comments and meetings that the government had were with food industry members,” L’Abbé said. “So that just says three-quarters of the people that they’re hearing from — who’ve been in and out of ministers’ offices and with senior officials — are with the food industry.”

As a food policy researcher, L’Abbé attended several stakeholder meetings with Health Canada and made a written submission in support of the legislation. 

“I’m still hopeful that it’s not dead,” said L’Abbé. “A huge amount of work went into it, a huge amount of consultation.”

‘It’s in the hands of the politicians’

There’s been no official word from Health Canada on the status of the rules. But one food industry lobbyist said Health Canada officials told her that it’s now up to the politicians.

“I’m in regular contact with them; I did meet with them last month,” said Michi Furuya Chang, senior vice-president of public policy and regulatory affairs for the Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC). 

The FCPC, which represents food processors, is one of the industry groups that has been talking to Health Canada about the food-labelling legislation.

“What they said to me the last time is, ‘It’s out of our hands. The package is complete,'” said Furuya Chang. “They’re also in waiting mode. It’s really in the hands of the politicians and Treasury Board to sign off on publication.”

Nutrition policy expert Mary L’Abbé is concerned about the fate of new rules that would require symbols on the front of food packages to warn consumers about high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat. (CBC)

There’s a risk that the whole process might have to start from scratch if the government doesn’t act soon.

Furuya Chang said that, according to government rules, the final regulations need to be published within 18 months of the first regulations. Those were published on Feb 10, 2018.

“Our understanding is that if Health Canada does not publish these final regulations by mid-August, so next month, Health Canada would be required to restart the entire consultation process,” said Furuya Chang.

A Health Canada spokesperson told CBC News in an email that the agency is still “considering all feedback and evidence” after “extensive consultations over the past several years.”

Front-of-package labels common around the world

For the last 30 years, many countries have passed front-of-package labelling rules using symbols, such as traffic lights or stop signs, to encourage consumers to purchase healthier food.

In Canada, processed food packages currently have a nutrition facts table on the back. But L’Abbé said some consumers are confused by that system. 

“It’s adding up that all of the symbols work better than the nutrition facts table for helping consumers understand the information and use it,” she said. “They actually purchase healthier foods.”

Health Canada released some prototypes of the labels in 2018, though the final design has not yet been released.

Health Canada previously released four proposed designs for a new front-of-package label for food and beverage packaging. The final designs have not yet been published. (Health Canada/CBC)

The label is one aspect that the FCPC lobbied to change, Furuya Chang said.

“The size of what they had proposed and the placement of it would have completely interrupted the branding of the product,” she said. “So some flexibility was the underlying message and theme throughout our feedback submissions.”

“We know that both of these measures — the front-of-pack labelling and the marketing to kids — are huge measures with a lot of teeth that would have a huge impact in terms of improving the health of kids over the long term and, in fact, helping all Canadians,” said Arango.

“Of course, it’s disappointing after all that effort that two of these big measures have not been done.”

Canada’s ban on trans fat, which took almost 15 years and three prime ministers to finally pass, was also included in the current government’s healthy eating strategy.

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