A challenge with food labeling…

As one indicator of the challenge of having accurate and consumer-friendly (ie: useful to the lay person) labeling, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now consulting with various groups to make adjustments to Canadian food labeling rules.

In 2009 the Canadian government introduced a standard that effectively dictated that for food products to be labeled “Product of Canada” it had to have 98% of its ingredients actually originating in Canada. Apparently, there has been a lot of push back on this from various industries, notably the food processors and farmers.

This really isn’t that hard to understand when one considers the scope of global integration into our supply chains, including the food supply chain. Canadian producers have to import lots of basic ingredients that we find today in our food products, including such standards as vinegar and sugar. So a Canadian manufacturer of a line of sugar cookies — made with local flour, in a local factory, with local employment, sold through local and national distributors — wouldn’t be allowed to present them as “Product of Canada” if more than 2% of the product (by weight?) was made from imported sugar, unless they include the tag line “from imported ingredients” or “from domestic and imported ingredients”. (By the way, if you look at the side of bag of sugar sold in Canada, it typically states “refined in Canada” but not that it is a “Product of Canada”.)

The real challenge in all of this is trying to figure out exactly what we are trying to communicate to consumers, and what consumers actually want to know about their products, and whether and how they expect to know about it through labeling requirements.

As the supply chains of our businesses become ever-more intertwined, global and complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to really know what is actually in the product we are purchasing, where it was sourced from, and how it was produced.

Which begs the question — do we care? And if we do care, what exactly is it that we want our labeling to tell us? We should probably spend some time answering that first, before we design our labeling regulations…

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