Windsor grocers selling foods with non-CFIA compliant labels

A CBC Windsor investigation has found dozens of food items sold on some store shelves in Windsor do not meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's labelling regulations and could put some consumers at risk.

Sale of foods with non-compliant labels could expose consumers to unnamed allergens and other risks

A CBC Windsor investigation has found dozens of food items for sale on some store shelves in Windsor do not meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's labelling regulations and could put some consumers at risk. 

These everyday food items range from corn meal and bread crumbs to salad dressing and snack foods.

CBC Windsor found some of these foods in big-box stores such as Real Canadian Superstore and Food Basics as well as smaller, local stores such as World Market Fresh, Fred's Farm Fresh, M.R. Meat Market, Joseph's Farm Market and Multifood Supermarket.

"Labels matter," said Carla Ventin, a vice president with Food & Consumer Products of Canada, an association representing the food industry. "If you have inaccurate labels, this is very misleading and confusing to consumers. We see this could have a negative impact on consumer safety, putting the health and safety of Canadians at risk."

Some risks could be more serious than others, especially for those suffering from food allergies, said Ventin. 

A label is considered to be non-compliant when it violates the regulations laid out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). It's illegal for retailers to sell food items in Canada that don't meet these standards. 

Canadian label requirements 

The CFIA has an extensive guide on all its rules, which can be long, complicated and very detailed. 

One of the more basic requirements is that all packages, with very few exceptions, must include both official languages, English and French.

Most packaged foods must have a nutrition facts table, the little chart that tells consumers how many calories there are in an item, as well as things such as fat and vitamin content. The requirements for these tables are very specific under Canadian law. 

The labels must list all measurements in metric units. While they may also include imperial measures, metric is mandatory.

There are rules about how ingredients in a food are labelled and what ingredients are required to be listed.

Canada also has its own allergen priority list — if any of those are found in a food sold here, it must be displayed on the package. 

"In the U.S. they don't include mustard and in Canada we do have mustard on our priority food allergen list," said Gary Gnirss, the president of Legal Suites Inc., a consultancy that works with food companies to make sure their labels meet Canadian standards. 

"So if a consumer is looking at a Canadian label with the expectation that allergen labelling is set up according to Canadian rules, they could expect that the mustard allergen would be broken out," he said. "If it was a U.S. label brought into Canada that did not address Canadian label concerns, that could be a potential issue if mustard is not declared on a U.S. label."

In Canada, there are also restrictions on any health claims made about a certain food. For example, a label can't include a statement such as "these potato chips cure cancer."

Canadian and U.S. differences

Some of the items CBC Windsor purchased were imported from overseas, but most were found to be from the U.S. Even though the regulations imposed by the CFIA are similar to those in the U.S., there are some important differences, such as the display of specific allergens.

Most of the food labels were entirely English, although a few, including a can of Pringles from Multifood, also had Spanish.

Another non-compliant food label was for P.A.N. corn meal, picked up at Food Basics, which was written in English and Spanish with the health claim, "very low gluten." 

According to CFIA regulations, "low gluten" or "reduced gluten" claims are not permitted. That's because it may give people with celiac disease the mistaken impression that it's safe for them to eat when it may not be.

CBC Windsor contacted Metro, the parent company of Food Basics and was referred to the Retail Council of Canada. The council's vice president of public affairs, Karl Littler, said it's clear the P.A.N labelling is not compliant with CFIA rules.

"For the moment they would have to look pretty seriously at pulling that item from the shelves until it was compliant," said Littler. "The issue here is where there's language that isn't permitted under the rules. It may be possible to sticker over the top for existing stock, obviously if you're looking for a longer haul solution they would have to look at the potential to speak to the manufacturer." 

At a Real Canadian Superstore location, which is owned by Loblaws, a Japanese tea was for sale with a label almost completely written in Japanese.

CBC Windsor also found a box of matzo ball mix at Superstore which has labelling only written in English. 

According to the CFIA website there are exceptions for specialty foods, such as Kosher foods intended to be used for religious occasions such as Passover. They can be labelled in one official language and can be sold in this form 40 days before and 20 days after Passover. Outside this time frame the package must be bilingual. 

Reaction from Windsor retailers 

The stores CBC Windsor looked into for this investigation may not be the only stores involved, but they are the ones in which non-compliant foods were found.

Loblaws issued a statement by email from Vice President David Groh which states: 

"…we pride ourselves on adherence to CFIA standards…We take our responsibility to customers very seriously and we appreciate you bringing this to our attention. We are taking action on the items you've flagged."

As for the smaller, independent stores in Windsor, many said similar things. 

Fred's Farm Fresh, Joseph's Farm Market and M.R. Meat Market said they were surprised to learn they had non-compliant food on their shelves. Some even called their distributors for clarification. All said they would be looking into the problem and take corrective action, including removing products from their shelves, if necessary.

The owner of Multifood Supermarket said he has spoken with the supplier of the Pringles product. He said the supplier told him it made a mistake delivering a product intended for the U.S. market, and will make a change on the next delivery. Multifood said it is taking measures to ensure this will not happen again. 

World Market Fresh refused to comment. 

Policing of food labels 

The CFIA is responsible for setting the labelling regulations. The agency is part of Health Canada. It enforces the rules through inspections, by partnering with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

CBC Windsor requested interviews with both the CFIA and CBSA but both agencies declined.

CFIA said in an email that it responds to complaints from consumers. It has an online data base on which people can look up all product regulations and file complaints.

Who is responsible?

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of Marketing & Consumer Studies at the University of Guelph said retailers must assume some of the responsibility for selling non-compliant foods but there are others involved.

"When you look at the entire supply chain, responsibility can actually be spread out to many different people, including brokers," he said. "Customs brokers are paid by importers to make sure that products are compliant and if they're not doing their job, there's a problem there."

CBC Windsor has not determined how these foods found their way on to Windsor store shelves however all of the products discovered in the investigation appear to have been imported.

"I would argue that education with distributors and retailers, the people who are actually importing products would go a long way," said Charlebois. "A lot of people who sell food aren't necessarily aware of how different regulations are from one country to another. With more education given either by the CFIA or trade groups to people importing food into our country, could have a larger impact than just checking at the border."

Border cities more likely to have wrong labels 

Gary Gnirss said cities like Windsor, which are positioned so close to the U.S. border, may see more non-compliant food labels.

"The Windsor area being in such close proximity to the U.S. it's very easy for smaller retailers or smaller stores to maybe just go across and do some purchasing in the U.S. and bring these small shipments into Canada," he said. 

It becomes difficult for the CFIA to track some of these shipments because not everything that comes into Canada is inspected, said Gnirss. 

"You have consumers that could easily cross the border and purchase products in the U.S. and there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "The problem we run into is if you have somebody that goes into the U.S. even a smaller's not for personal import it's for commercial import."

He said the problem goes back to a consumer who buys those products expecting the labelling to reflect Canadian regulations, such as allergen information, which can put them at risk without even knowing.