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This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of L’actualité ALIMENTAIRE magazine.
Food-processing companies are burdened by tremendous administrative and technological requirements. In fact, they must conform to high safety standards, complex export regulations, which vary from one country to another, stringent labelling standards, which are complicated and difficult to apply, and large administrative and financial obligations relating to the environment and occupational safety and health, not to mention all of the standard government requirements that they must fulfill. While prescriptive regulation contributes to strengthening Canadian products’ excellent reputation in the global market, it also undermines companies’ abilities to innovate and improve their productivity. It also it puts them at a disadvantage compared to some imported products that are not held to standards as strict as ours.
In the years 2013 and 2014, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducted several consultation events with key industry and public players. The goal was to address the key issues related to legislative and regulatory modernization, first drawn up in 1974, and then modified in 2003. Today, these texts are obsolete and they lack clarity for both manufacturers and the public, particularly with regard to terminology, claims, certain ingredient names, and dating. However, manufacturers’ interests, consumers’ needs, and food knowledge in general have significantly changed since then, nevertheless without coinciding.
How can the interests of each party be reconciled?
It is well known that the processors’ goal is to sell the maximum amount of product. For this to occur, it must be made available at a reasonable price and satisfy customers’ tastes and health requirements. Government authorities are responsible for promoting safe and healthy food, preventing health risks, and protecting the population from unfit food. As for consumers, they want to eat at an affordable price, enjoy themselves, and, increasingly, ensure that they are doing so while maintaining their health. That being said, the criteria of each group differ on this issue, and the various health benefit claims now seen on packaging have contributed to creating, in recent years, a virtual chaos in which misinformation rules.
The information required
In fact, the main purpose of packaging and labels should be to eliminate any confusion and to provide consumers with all of the information required to make informed choices based on their needs and values. Informed consumers want to know products’ origin and the true nature of each ingredient, for example, a percentage of the recommended daily value of each sugar and salt type in the product, as well as its chlorine and trace element content, or even an assessment of the overall quality of the food.
The grocery store of the future presented at Milan’s Universal Exposition 2015 distinguished itself more so by the information made available, posted on interactive electronic boards, than by the products’ presentation. You simply touched the screen to access various charts on the origin of the product, to see a display on the producers, sometimes with a photo, and to learn more about the production method, carbon footprint, whether or not they use pesticides, whether or not it contains GMOs, the list of ingredients along with explanations of their nutritional value, shelf life, etc.
In Europe, Australia and the United States, with Whole Foods as a pioneer, there is a clear trend toward greater transparency and more detailed information. In Europe, it is mandatory to indicate the presence of GMOs. The United Kingdom has a traffic light system on the front of packages that indicates to what extent a product will contribute to a balanced diet in terms of its total caloric, saturated fat, salt and sugar content. Whole Foods supermarkets have also established a tricolor system indicating the degree of environmental responsibility of the production methods used to create the products, based on various criteria (e.g., free of biosolids, responsible fishing, etc.).
These actions indicate a more holistic approach to food and to the production chain. The trend is clear, consumers increasingly want to know what they’re buying and what they’re eating. Is this yet another burden for manufacturers? Yes, but on the other hand, it could be a competitive advantage for innovative processors. And to initiate the change, leaders, with some help from authorities, are being called upon to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
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