Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is standing firm Tuesday on taking a voluntary approach with the food industry on trans fat, even though newly released documents show her department was ready to impose regulations in 2009.
Documents obtained by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest show Health Canada had prepared an entire communications plan, news releases and briefing notes for Aglukkaq to announce the food industry would face regulations to limit the amount of trans fat in products after being given two years to do it voluntarily.
"We intend to regulate the levels of trans fat in the Canadian food supply to protect all Canadians from high trans fat intakes and to ensure there is a level playing field for industry," a question period note for Aglukkaq that was prepared in September 2009 said. Another document showed the government intended to publish proposed regulations in the spring of 2010.
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A draft news release said Canada has made "significant progress" toward reducing trans fat levels through the industry's voluntary efforts, "however some foods still contain more trans fat than is acceptable." Aglukkaq was going to announce that the proposed regulations would limit the trans fat content of vegetable oils and soft, spreadable margarines to two per cent of the total fat content and all other foods to five per cent.
But the announcement was never made and the plan for regulations appears to have been abandoned.
There are no signs that it will be revived, based on statements made by Aglukkaq in question period Tuesday.
"Our government continues to make prevention and health promotion a priority — that includes reducing trans fats in foods," Aglukkaq said.
"I have instructed my department to continue its engagement with stakeholders to identify the challenges and how best to overcome them without adding a regulatory burden," she said.
Canadians can make 'informed choices'
"We will continue to use tools such as the Canada Food Guide and the Nutrition Facts Table to provide Canadians with the information they need to make informed choices about the amount of trans fats in their food," said Aglukkaq. The same comments were provided to CBC News earlier in the day by her office.
Aglukkaq declined an interview request.
The voluntary reduction targets, the same ones in the proposed regulations, were set in 2007, and for two years a monitoring program by Health Canada checked whether the industry was co-operating.
Steve Outhouse, Aglukkaq's spokesman, said the results from that program show "that we are making real progress, as close to three-quarters of pre-packaged foods under review met the reduction targets."
But Bill Jeffery, from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said that program was flawed and it did not do a comprehensive review of the food supply.
"I'm not persuaded by the monitoring results and the way Health Canada's analyzed them, that there's been the kind of progress that they've described," he said.
Jeffery said he does accept that some companies have reduced trans fat in their foods, but that Canadians are still consuming too much and putting their health at risk.
Trans fat can occur naturally but the processed types are added to foods, typically fried foods and baked goods, to maintain taste and smell and give them longer shelf lives. Trans fat has been linked to heart disease and increased cholesterol levels.
Aglukkaq accused of abandoning her duty
"You really have to wonder what the minister of health is doing," said Jeffery. "Here's a clear opportunity to get health-care costs down and increase productivity and they're opposed to it. It's inexplicable to me."
He said the documents show there was an internal consensus at Health Canada that regulations were needed but that the government appears ideologically opposed to regulations.
"The other bigger picture is what other public health interventions is the government forgoing just for ideological reasons?" he said. Jeffery said Aglukkaq's duty is to protect public health and that she "has her head in the sand."
Aglukkaq's critics from the opposition benches in the House of Commons made similar accusations and are demanding the government bring in regulations.
"Obviously this minister thinks that she is a scientist and she knows more than her department," Liberal health critic Hedy Fry said, describing the abandonment of the regulations as an "ideological decision."
Chronic diseases and poor health outcomes, which could be prevented if more action was taken by the government, end up costing the taxpayer because of the burden on the health system, said Fry.
"I think it's very disturbing because I think the minister is putting the interests of industry first rather than the public interest and I think we see a pattern emerging," said the NDP health critic Libby Davies.
The voluntary regime "clearly hasn't worked," she said following a meeting of the Commons health committee where health promotion and disease prevention is currently being studied.
"It's time for the health minister to stand up for Canadians and to insist that this has to be carried through. The fact that they abandoned what they were going to do in 2009 I think casts great skepticism on her credibility as a minister of health and whether or not she's there actually representing the public health interest," said Davies.
The documents also contain a briefing note for Aglukkaq from December 2009 that says 90 per cent of Canadian adults and almost all children exceeded the recommended limits of trans fat intake, and that reducing that intake over the next 20 years could save $5 billion to $9 billion and prevent 12,000 heart attacks.
Using alternative ingredients would only mean a "minimal cost" to the food industry, an estimated $204 million to $209 million, largely to the baking industry and fast food restaurants, the note said.