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. 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 Trademarks Act, administered by Industry Canada. Importantly, the Competition Act was amended in 2024 (Bill C-59, 2023) to restrict greenwashing, which could down the road affect how agribusiness and farm groups portray their environmental stewardship in marketing. 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). Because social media remains such a minimally regulated space, there is evidence of very aggressive and questionable food marketing practices through a number of platforms. As well, because the internet crosses borders, firms advertising on social media and moving food across borders should be licensed by the CFIA (a requirement as of July 2020), but they are having trouble policing such e-commerce platforms (Jameson, 2021).

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. Implementation of many provisions of the Safe Food for Canadians Act and Regulations were delayed, in part because of COVID-19, many not put into effect until late 2021 and 2022 (Jameson, 2021).