Consumer information

(adapted from MacRae et al., 2012)


Shifting terrain of consumer information regulation

Current regulatory environment




Financing the transition


Both health and sustainability are stated public policy objectives, but Canada’s food information rules and practices are not optimal to support their achievement. Lacking a clear purpose for public information about food, given the absence of a national food policy, the information presented is frequently left to the marketers of product. No one has responsibility for determining the overall coherence of consumer food messages with these stated policy objectives. Individual firms provide information that shows their products to the best advantage. As a result, consumers receive information that is incomplete, and which may contradict the information provided by another firm or government agency. Individual consumers do not have the resources to determine with any ease the accuracy or completeness of any firm's messages, particularly when faced with the size of food industry advertising budgets. Partly in response to these information and monitoring gaps, third parties have now entered the consumer food information system, providing endorsements and health and eco-labels that can affect consumer purchasing behaviour.

Government rules confound this problem because there is limited coherence between the parts and levels of government that have responsibility for advertising rules, labeling, and grading systems. The healthy eating messages of health departments are often competing with contradictory messages permitted by the regulatory framework of other arms of government. Investments in programs that successfully promote environmental stewardship in agriculture are undercut in the market because consumer information rules do not permit them to identify many of these products and support those efforts with their purchases and eating.

Additionally, the current approach to information compromises healthy eating.  It has been known for some time that diet is a significant risk factor in at least 60% of diseases (see discussion under Problems). Many chronic diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stress, cancer, diabetes, low birth weight infants (and its associated problems), anemia, and some infections in children now pose major public health challenges. All of these chronic diseases and conditions are related to nutrition. They affect both the food-rich (those with sufficient income to acquire whatever foods they desire) and the food-poor (those experiencing food insecurity). Very significant percentages of the Canadian population are at risk of these diseases because they do not eat in a manner optimal for health. Of course, healthy eating is a complex undertaking, but information about food is certainly a significant factor.

Canadians all pay, through publicly-funded health insurance, for the costs of individuals' food choices or hunger. The food system, through which most people acquire food, carries no responsibility for the social consequences of consumption of its products. Food companies bear no responsibility for the consequences of poor consumer information programming as it relates to the health dimensions of their product. The efforts of ministries of health to promote healthy eating are frequently compromised by agribusiness expenditures encouraging unhealthy eating patterns.

Equally, they bear little responsibility for the negative environmental impacts of their products.  Canada lags behind most OECD countries in agri-environmental performance (OECD, 2008, see also Problems, environment). In the industrial world, most of these environmental costs are externalized, absorbed in the environment, or remediated by the state, using taxpayer money (Tegtmeier and Duffy, 2004).

Confronted with a myriad of food system problems, governments are failing on many fronts related to health promotion and sustainability, including changing food information rules to enlist eaters in a public effort to create change. This hands-off approach to consumer information is particularly problematic against the backdrop of a growing movement of “citizen-consumers”, eaters who bring a set of values to their shopping and eating decisions that go beyond individual concerns.

Other countries have recognized this problem and taken actions to solve it, Norway and the Netherlands representing two contrasting approaches. In the 1970s, Norway aligned food production and nutrition information with their nutrition policy objectives, to motivate better dietary habits and to develop skills for making more informed food choices. The government recog­nized that "present marketing practices are in relatively large disaccord with the nutritional objectives . . . The factors which today regulate sales are only to a small degree dictated by nutritional considerations." (Norwegian Department of Agriculture, 1975:72). Following a different strategy, because they were unwilling to extensively regulate environmental changes in the agricultural sector, the Dutch government has actively facilitated eco-label programming by NGOs, farm associations, and firms to allow consumers to be better informed about the sustainability attributes of food products. Whether this is the most effective approach is subject to some debate (van Amstel et al., 2007), but it highlights how environmental information can potentially drive supply chain changes with well-designed and profound programming.

Given the current low level of support for significant change to consumer information systems in Canada, the transition will have to be a slow, evolutionary process requiring action by many different advocates, both within and outside of these systems. Key solutions are proposed rooted in key conceptual frames in health promotion, agroecology, and emerging ideas on regulatory pluralism.