CANADIAN FOOD LABELLING LAWS:
WHEN IS A LABEL NOT A LABEL?
Food labelling is currently regulated by the
Canadian Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, which was passed in
1954 when the effects of undeclared trace amounts of food allergens
were not fully appreciated. Efforts are presently underway to make
all food labelling safer for food-allergic individuals.
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By Antony J. Ham Pong, MB, BS,
FRCPC, and Marion Zarkadas, MSc
Dr. Ham-Pong is lecturer, department
of pediatrics, University of Ottawa, consultant, Children's Hospital
of Eastern Ontario, and committee member, Regulatory Review Project
19 (labelling of food causing severe adverse reactions in Canadians),
joint Agriculture & Agri-Food and Health Canada Committee, Ottawa,
Ms. Zarkadas is a food specialist,
Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, and project leader, Regulatory
Review Project 19, Ottawa, Ontario.
CASE REPORT #1
A 3-1/2-year-old boy with eczema
has a milk allergy that has caused vomiting, sneezing and hives.
The father purchased a bag of tortilla chips after verifying that
the labelled ingredients did not include milk. The ingredients listed
were corn, vegetable oil, color and seasoning (salt, monosodium
glutamate [MSG]). The boy ate three tortilla chips and immediately
experienced a burning sensation in the mouth and facial swelling.
He was treated with epinephrine in the emergency department of a
The manufacturer was contacted
and revealed that, in addition to salt and MSG, the seasoning contained
milk products, cheese, onion powder, garlic powder, tomato powder,
imitation parsley, and may also contain caramel and annato.
CASE REPORT #2
A 17-month-old boy had a history
of milk allergy, eczema and asthma. Thirty-five minutes after eating
chicken with teriyaki sauce at a Japanese restaurant, he began to
experience wheezing and hives that required treatment in the emergency
department. The boy has had chicken at the same restaurant previously
without any difficulties. The manufacturer of the teriyaki sauce
was contacted regarding the components, but the child was not known
to be allergic to any of them. On the allergist's advice, the father
obtained the ingredient list of the chicken served at the restaurant,
which was located on the bulk shipping carton. The list indicated
the presence of milk solids in the chicken.
These case histories illustrate
some of the difficulties experienced by individuals with food allergies
under the current Canadian Food and Drugs Act and Regulations (FDR).
The FDR came into force in 1954 and is a consumer-protection statute
dealing with health, safety and economic-fraud aspects of food,
drugs, cosmetics and medical devices.' Health Canada and Agriculture
& Agri-Food Canada (HC/AAFC) currently are reviewing regulation
that would affect the labelling of food that is known to cause adverse
reactions. Unfortunately, at the time the FDR was passed, food allergies
and the possible impact of undeclared trace amounts of allergens
in food were not fully appreciated. This has led to serious consequences
for food-allergic individuals.
The Canadian FDR, which apply
to prepackaged food at all levels of trade in Canada, require a
complete list of ingredients on the labels of almost all food. Within
these regulations, however, certain food ingredients are exempt
from declaration of some or all components (ingredients of ingredients).
In addition, common names for some forms of hydrolysed plant proteins
and starch do not identify the plant source. As a result, it is
possible for food that causes adverse reactions in hypersensitive
individuals to be present in a prepackaged food in Canada without
being identified on the food label.
|The greatest source
of confusion regarding allergic reactions, however, appears
to be with flavoring preparations, seasonings and spice mixtures.
The patient in the first case
report ran afoul of the exemptions listed in Table 1. If a seasoning
constitutes less than 2% of a total food product, the ingredients
of the seasoning do not necessarily have to be declared. The tortilla
chip seasoning contained milk proteins and other components that
were not declared, but were present in sufficient quantities to
cause an acute allergic reaction. Salt and MSG were declared as
required by regulation (Table 2). The food ingredients listed in
Table 1 contain common allergenic components that do not have to
be declared and, thus, may lead to unexpected allergic reactions.
|SOME "INGREDIENTS" THAT
ARE EXEMPT FROM DECLARATION OF THEIR COMPONENTS WHEN ADDED TO
Glucose and corn syrup
Prepared or preserved
meat, fish, poultry or their byproducts, if they constitute
less than 10% of another food product
Hydrolyzed plant protein
Seasoning and herb mixtures
Taken from: Canadian Food and
Drug Regulations, section B.01.009, division 1, part B.
The following are examples of
food that contain allergenic components that are declared on the
label when sold separately. When that food is added as an ingredient
of another food, however, some of the components do not have to
Most types of margarine contain
milk proteins, and starches and modified starches may not always
be identified by plant source. Standard bread contains wheat, but
may also contain milk, egg and other flours (such as chickpea flour),
up to 5% of the total weight. If bread is added as an ingredient
to another food, such as bread crumbs, these components do not have
to be declared. Glucose and corn syrup may contain sulfites.
The greatest source of confusion
regarding allergic reactions appears to be with flavoring preparations,
seasonings and spice mixtures. "Natural flavours" canít include
milk, egg, fish, beef extract and other components. Food that has
a higher risk of containing undeclared milk proteins includes seasoned
chips (such as potato and tortilla chips), batter, coated or seasoned
french fries, hot dogs and processed meats. Fish may be found as
flavoring ingredients in cheese spreads, salad dressings, flavoured
croutons and Worcestershire sauce. Other examples of products regarded
as 'seasonings" include ketchup, soya sauce, prepared mustard, Worcestershire
sauce and cheese powders. Seasonings may also include carriers and
binders that may contain salt, sugar, lactose, whey powder and other
milk powders, cereal flours and starches.
|SOME FOOD ADDITIVES THAT
MUST BE LISTED
Flavoring enhancers: e.g.,
A food additive in excess
of the amount required for normal effect
pH-adjusting agents such
as citric acid, lactic acid or sulfites added directly to
Table 3 lists typical ingredients
of Worcestershire sauce that must be declared on the label of the
sauce as sold, and compares this list to the components that must
be declared when the sauce is less than 2% of the total product
and is labelled as "seasoning." As can be seen, several allergens,
including fish and walnut, may be present but do not have to be
labelled when Worcestershire sauce is identified as seasoning in
a food product.
The second patient developed an
allergic reaction because of the presence of an unexpected allergen--milk
protein--in retail chicken. Certain foods sold at the retail level
(Table 4) are exempt from ingredient listings, and this includes
food served in eating establishments. The original shipping container
containing bulk food, however, should have an ingredient list that
identifies the offending component, as determined subsequently in
this case. In practice, it may be difficult to obtain that ingredient
list quickly, since the original bulk packaging may have been discarded.
WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE: AN EXAMPLE
OF COMPONENT EXEMPTION
sauce is < 2% of product
Precautionary labelling of food
was allowed by Field Operations Directorate, Health Protection Branch
of Health and Welfare Canada in March, 1994. This recognized that,
due to cross-contamination, certain food products may inadvertently
contain compounds that can cause severe reactions, allergic or otherwise.
Canadian food manufacturers, therefore, have been allowed to use
the words "may contain" to indicate the potential presence of these
products, usually allergens that can cause severe reactions. This
was intended as a nonregulatory initiative to allow consumers to
make informed choices about potential allergens in food.
Manufacturers were informed that
this type of labelling must be used judiciously and should only
be temporary until adequate steps can be taken to ensure the absence
of the identified food. There have been some concerns expressed
by allergic individuals that such precautionary labelling may be
used in place of good manufacturing practices as a type of reverse
disclaimer, to protect manufacturers from legal liability. While
most manufacturers adhere to good manufacturing practises and use
precautionary labelling to protect and inform the consumer, the
extent of indiscriminate use of precautionary labelling is unknown.
|SOME PREPACKAGED PRODUCTS
EXEMPT FROM INGREDIENT LISTING
Taken from: Canadian Food and
Drug Regulations, section B.01.008, division 1, part B.
- Bulk food packaged at
- Individual food portions
served with meals or snacks
- Single servings of crackers,
sugar, ketchup, mustard, etc.
- Individual food sold
in automatic vending machines or mobile canteens
- Poultry and meat cooked
- Standardized alcoholic
beverages and vinegar
|PROPOSED CANADIAN LIST
OF FOOD THAT SHOULD ALWAYS BE DECLARED ON FOOD LABELS (HC/AAFC)
Wheat, rye, barley,
oats and hybridized strains
Peanuts, tree nuts,
Fish and Shellfish
Sulfites greater than/equal
to 10 ppm
A review of the FDR was initiated
in 1993 and is still ongoing. Of interest to allergists and allergic
consumers is a joint consultation on "Labelling of food causing
severe adverse reactions in Canadians" by Agriculture & Agri-Food
Canada and Health Canada. This committee is currently attempting
to identify food that can cause anaphylactic, life-threatening or
seriously debilitating medical conditions, to clarify the impact
of the regulations on the labelling of this food and to propose
changes to those regulations so that this food can be more accurately
identified on food labels. This consultation group will also make
recommendations on precautionary labelling. The proposed Canadian
list of food (Table 5) is similar to that of the draft list prepared
by the Codex Committee on Food labelling (Food and Agriculture/World
Health Organization, 1996).
Currently, a food-allergic individual
must be knowledgeable and careful to avoid ingesting prepackaged
food containing undeclared allergens. At present, that person needs
to be aware that certain food may have a higher risk of carrying
certain allergens, even if that risk is not stated as such on the
label. He or she must also know that cross-contamination with allergenic
food can occur both at the manufacturing and retail level.
These proposed regulatory changes,
if enacted, will allow the vast majority of food-allergic individuals
to recognize when traces of allergenic food is present in a food
product simply by reading the label.
1 . A strategic direction
for change: A review of the regulations under the Food and
Drugs Act. Health Protection Branch, August 1993, 1:9.
2. Canadian Food and
Drug Regulations, section B.01.009, division 1, part B.
3. Canadian Food and Drug Regulations,
section B.01.008, division 1, part 8.
Appeared in ALLERGY in September
1996. Used by permission of the author.
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