Health Canada talking food — too often, behind closed doors

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency plays a key role in agriculture and food production enforcing rules and regulations set by Health Canada to ensure the safety of food produced or imported into Canada.

That makes it vital for the food industry and consumers to track what Health Canada is up to. That's not an easy task because the department likes to work behind closed doors and in committees where it controls what the public is told. CFIA is usually far more talkative about what it does.

So it's interesting that Health Canada has launched consultations on three food related issues — transfats, salt levels and colourings. As well, it's creating a Food Regulatory Advisory Committee. But outsiders wouldn't know much about these initiatives unless they combed through the department's Byzantine website.

Last month, officials from the Health Protection and Food Branch outlined the department's plans for the advisory committee, whose members will likely be named this spring. There'll be five from the research and academic community, five from health professional groups, five from the food industry and five from consumer groups. It's not clear whether there'll be any spots for the people who actually grow the food. Members of the committee will have to sign a confidentiality agreement further ensuring we don't hear about what's going on.

Health Canada presented a 54 page outline of its food safety initiatives to a meeting of food industry groups last month. The document doesn't provide many details on how it might deal with what it sees as problem areas — pre-market approvals for food additives, novel foods and health claims; risk management strategies for food safety and reducing food borne risks such as allergies. The issues mainly involve food processors but farmers would do well to keep track of Health Canada's furtive consultations.

In mid February, the department held a think tank on adding vitamins and minerals to foods, which the food industry wants but health groups are leery of. Health Canada is hoping to find a compromise between the two sides because that's easier politically than leaving it to the minister to actually make a decision.

It's also launched a public consultation on labeling for food coloring that will run until May 4. There's a voluntary program in effect now that allows manufacturers to list food coloring used in a product on the label.

The department says, "There is some evidence suggesting a link between consumption of certain food colors and adverse reactions in sensitive individuals. More recently, certain food color mixtures have been associated with behavioral effects in children. For these reasons, Health Canada considers it prudent to improve labeling requirements for food color by requiring all colors used in a product to be listed on the label."

At some point this year, the department will have to move ahead with implementation of the recommendations of the Weatherill report on the 2008 Listeria outbreak as well as the Harper government's promised legislation to improve food safety.

Other than the occasional glib assurance from Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, we're not hearing much about what the department is considering. That's not reassuring to anyone in the food business. Or to anyone who eats.

12 March 2010 — Return to cover.