Current regulatory environment

In the Canadian system, responsibilities for consumer information are divided among different acts, levels of government, and different units within government departments (CFIA, undated).  The most important pieces of federal legislation are now the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations (FDA), and since 2019 the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA)  (previously pertinent provisions of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and Regulations (CPLA), the Canadian Agricultural Products Act (CAPA), the Meat Inspection Act (MIA), the Fish Inspection Act (FIA) were  folded into the SFCA, although some of its new rules are coming into force in 2020 and 2021). In addition, the federal Broadcasting Act and Regulations have an influence over food commercial messages.  This act is the responsibility of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), with regard to the application of regulations and policy rulings.  Other pieces of legislation with limited, but sometimes important, bearing on food include the Competition Act and the Trade-marks Act, administered by Industry Canada.  In many provinces, there are also provincial rules pertaining to food labeling (e.g., in Ontario, the Farm Products Grades and Sales Act, Regulation 387) The Ontario government is also involved in grading, meat inspection, nutrition and food safety matters.  Municipalities in many provinces have some responsibility for implementing provincial legislation regarding nutrition and food safety programs, as they relate to public health, and consequently have some consumer information duties.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada (HC) share responsibility for regulating food labeling, based on the authorities provided primarily by the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) and the SFCA. Health Canada sets food labeling policies dealing with health and safety matters and CFIA is responsible for non-health and safety food labeling regulations and policies, as well as investigating complaints, encouraging compliance and consumer protection.

Regarding the development of food labeling regulations, the prime concern for CFIA is that no information materials be “false”, “misleading” or “deceptive” as stated in   Food Labeling Regulations. This situation exists because food safety legislation in Canada has been built on an anti-adulteration platform (Ostry, 2006; Blay-Palmer, 2008) , consistent with the criminal law powers of the federal government.

According to the CFIA (undated), a label provides basic product , health, safety and nutrition information, and is a vehicle  for food marketing, promotion, and advertising. The policies pertaining to food labeling and packaging, are designed to:

  • Prevent product misrepresentation and fraud
  • Promote informed food choice
  • Support fair competition
  • Respect international and federal-provincial trade agreements
  • Have greater benefits to society than costs.

Given the complexity of the current system, the jurisdictional divisions, and the gaps in coverage, the question remains whether the current regulatory environment does promote informed food choice, especially with the emergence of a broader range of consumer concerns. A particular regulatory gap exists regarding internet advertising and social media, where much research reveals significant influence on product choices (e.g., Mintel, 2015).

Health Canada is revising many of the core features of the current approach (see Policy Actors, Federal Government, Departments) and some of their more interesting proposals are discussed under Efficiency and Substitution solutions.