Will new food labels lead to smarter shopping?

When we hit the grocery store these days there’s more on our minds than simply “what’s for dinner?” Growing concerns over the environment and questionable food safety have us asking other questions: Is this food healthy? Is it local? Is it organic?

And, most importantly, is it safe?

You may have heard a lot of about food labelling initiatives in Canada and the U.S., but what are the new regulations and what do they mean for consumers?

Made in Canada (or not)

Food labels in Canada have undergone some major changes since 2000, mostly in how nutritional information is displayed on the packaging. However, the most recent changes aren’t specifically addressing health or food safety. Instead, the focus is on “how Canadian is our food?” — or more specifically, our processed food? To avoid misleading claims and to help consumers make better decisions, here’s how the labelling will work starting December 31, 2008:

The Made in Canada label means that a food product i s manufactured or processed in Canada, but the ingredients can come from elsewhere. The label will have to indicate whether the product was made from “from domestic and imported ingredients” or just “from imported ingredients”.

In comparison, Product of Canada means “all or virtually all” major ingredients and the labour involved must come from Canada. Items like spices, flavouring, vitamins and additives can be imported but can’t comprise more than two percent of the product each. Products exported by Canada and then re-imported won’t be eligible for this label. Other materials used in the process — animal feed, seed, fertilizers, medications and packing — don’t have to be from Canada.

Under the current rule, Product of Canada foods only need to have just over half of their ingredients from Canada — a label which was criticized as misleading.

COOL rules in the U.S.

After many delays, new Country of Origin Labels (COOL) finally came into effect in the U.S. on October 1, 2008. This law requires that all imported products must have conspicuous labelling showing from which country they came. What’s included?

– Meat (beef, veal, lamb, chicken, pork, goat, fish and shellfish, etc).

– Fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen)

– Nuts (peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts)

– Ginseng

The labeling used to be voluntary, but now it’s a mandatory requirement. Exporters supplying products to the U.S. will have to comply with the labeling requirements — at their own expense.

How does it differ from Canada? Mandatory labelling isn’t required here, though you’ll often see a “Product of…” or “Grown in…” sign at your local grocery store or country of origin listed on the packaging. It might not be on the sticker on the fruit, or on the elastic band around a bunch of broccoli — measures which will be required in the U.S. — but it isn’t difficult to find the information here.

Economy versus safety

As consumers, many people want to know as much as possible about the foods we eat. But does labelling actually address food safety concerns?

With a string of food recalls and warnings involving imported products (or products containing imported ingredients) people are worried about the safety of foreign procedures and products. Knowing where a food comes from and where it’s manufactured is helpful in the case of a recall or safety warning. For example, if a warning was issued to avoid all tomatoes from a particular country, then it would be easy to identify which products were safe at the store or in your fridge. It can also alert consumers to products from a country that has questionable food safety practices, or where outbreaks of animal illnesses are occurring. Furthermore, better labelling can help officials trace the source of outbreaks.

In addition, these labels promote purchasing products that support the local or national economy. With economic and environmental concerns on everyone’s minds, then better labels can prevent misleading claims and will ultimately allow people to make more informed choices about where their food comes from.

So what’s the catch?

Will the labels promote safety? Perhaps… but food recalls and outbreaks don’t just occur with imported products. If the recent Maple Leaf listeria outbreak and this summer’s tomato recall in the U.S. are any indication, consumers are also at risk from their own country’s production and inspection processes. Imported ingredients and outsourced processing or packaging aren’t always identified in the labels — which are potential sources of contamination. Prepared foods or products containing mixed ingredients, like bagged salad, are exempt.

In other words, a “Product of Canada” or “Product of USA” label isn’t a 100 per cent safety guarantee.

And what’s good for the consumer isn’t necessarily good for the producer. The labels could prejudice customers against buying produce or meat products from countries where there has been a previous scare, even after the issue has been investigated and resolved.

In addition, Canadian farmers and producers are concerned that the COOL labels put them at a disadvantage in the competitive U.S. market, especially when it comes to controversial subsidies. (COOL was one of the provisions of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002). It’s a complicated issue, but there could be some protest from Canadians now that the regulations have officially become law.

Furthermore, in countries as large as the U.S. and Canada, country of origin labelling doesn’t always translate to greener choices. Buying foods within a 100-mile radius of your home can include crossing borders, but it also means avoiding foods grown on the opposite end of one’s own country.

So how helpful will the new labels be? It depends on who you ask. Some media reports both praise the new initiatives, and criticize Canada and the U.S. for not going far enough. However, when it comes to better information for consumers most experts agree that the COOL labels and Canada’s new product designation rules are a step in the right direction. For savvy label-readers, the extra information might just come in handy.