New federal healthy eating strategy may lead to warning symbols on your cheese

Some industry groups say Health Canada's proposals to encourage Canadians to eat healthier food goes too far, and could lead to warning labels on food that's good for you, such as some milk and cheese.

Some industry groups unhappy with federal government's approach to encouraging healthier eating

Health Minister Jane Philpott says the Canada Food Guide needs to be updated to help Canadians strike the right balance in making healthy food choices. (Philip Ling/CBC)

Some industry groups say Health Canada's plans to encourage Canadians to eat healthier food goes too far, and could lead to warning labels on food that's good for you, such as some milk, and cheese.

And they argue federal proposals may cost them almost $2 billion.

But federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said she has to consider the long-term cost of Canadians developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure after years of eating unhealthy food.

"One of the most important things about our health is what we eat and how we eat," Philpott said during a visit to an Ottawa grocery store this week.

Health Canada is in the middle of public consultations as it revamps the Canada Food Guide, considers a ban on advertising and marketing junk food to kids and teens, and looks to add front-of-package symbols warning consumers about foods that are high in salt, sugar or saturated fat.

CBC News has obtained a copy of a report prepared for Health Canada in March that shows proposed symbols presented to focus groups. The symbols tested included a stop sign and a triangle with an exclamation point in the middle.

"Our goal would be to have something that people are going to look at that would be as simple as possible and as easy to identify as possible," Philpott said in an interview with CBC News, adding that no final decision has been made.

Warnings on cheese, yogurt

Under the proposed changes, these warning signs could end up on the front of homogenized milk, high-fat cheeses and sweetened yogurts. A second round of consultations of a new Canada Food guide also included a proposal to have more caution about consuming the dairy products.

The proposals led the Dairy Farmers of Canada to send a newsletter to all MPs.

"Imagine yourself walking alongside your constituents in your local grocery store and seeing a carton of whole milk, a product that is widely considered to bring significant nutritional value, and that is recommended by health authorities as the drink of choice for young children. Unfortunately, on that carton of whole milk, despite its nutritional benefits, there is a big stop sign put there by the government to warn you away," the newsletter states.

Instead the Health Canada document recommends Canadians eat more vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods, with a focus on plant-based sources of protein.

This, too, is not sitting well with dairy farmers.

The new proposed labels are too focused on three things that are bad for you, said Isabelle Bouchard, director of communications for Dairy Farmers of Canada. Dairy products would be called out for their fat content, while their benefits are overlooked, she said.

"There's zinc, potassium, vitamin C, there's a lot of other nutrients that need to be comprehended, when you're thinking about a balanced diet. Focusing on the three — that's [a] problem," said Bouchard.

Philpott wants clear, simple food warning symbols

5 years ago
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Philpott wants clear, simple food warning symbols

Philpott said she supports a diet based on moderation, but that the Canada Food Guide is there to help people pick the best foods possible.

"Moderation is important — recognizing that some foods do have incredibly good nutrients in them, like calcium and vitamin D in dairy products, for a healthy lifestyle and living well, but again, recognizing that excessive amounts of fats can have health risk associated with it," she said.

"Obviously a baby needs the fats that's in the dairy products and most of us don't. So if you're going to choose a dairy product, is there a way to choose one that has less fat in it?" she added.

The dairy industry isn't the only one upset with some of these proposed changes.

CBC News has obtained a document presented to the federal government a few weeks ago from a coalition of food manufacturers.

It outlines a number of concerns with the proposed changes to how food is processed and packaged for consumers.

"There is concern that the front-of-package warnings proposed by Health Canada (with stop sign and caution symbols) can leave consumers with the perception that there is inherent danger from consuming the product," the 32-page document states.

It urges the government to return to past practices, such as the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign, which encouraged people to rely on the nutrition facts label often found on the side of packages.

Food manufacturers say they would prefer the government stick with a program to encourage shoppers to use the Nutrition Facts labels found on the side on food packages rather than add front-of-package warning symbols. (Kelly Crowe/CBC)

Changes will cost $1.8B: Manufacturers

But Philpott said families are busy when grocery shopping and need something on the front of packages to highlight food that is high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. If companies are unhappy, she said, they could reformulate the product to cut down those three nutrients.

"Maybe they should make it with a little less sugar or salt. That will be to Canadians' benefit and the label won't need to go on with the warning sign," Philpott said.

Food manufacturers are also worried about the impact on the health of their bottom lines, arguing all of the coming changes to the front of the package and the nutrition labels, will cost industry an estimated $1.8 billion.

Philpott said Health Canada is consulting broadly, including with industry, but she point out that diabetes is Canada's number one public health challenge.

"And if we can help Canadians make choices so that they're not eating a sugary diet, then the health benefits of that will far outweigh the costs that we do recognize are associated with these regulatory changes," Philpott said.

Canada's new Food Guide will include more guidance for Canadians on a vegetarian or vegan diet. (Philip Ling/CBC)

Philpott also said that while the new guide won't promote vegan or vegetarian diets, it will offer broader choices for people who don't eat meat.

"I think we have to keep balance in mind. Of course there are Canadians who have different diets. Some Canadians choose to be vegetarians, for example, and yet those folks need to have some good advice on … alternative sources of protein."


Susan Lunn has been covering politics in Ottawa since 2002. She has a special interest in health and the environment.


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