Centre for Science in the Public Interest

For the Record

For Immediate Release:
June 12, 2002

For more information:
Bill Jeffery

Related Links:
Annotated Version of Proposed Label
— June 12, 2002

Groups that endorse CSPI’s submission
— June 12, 2002

Letter to the Honourable Anne McLellan, MP, PC, Minister of Health
— June 12, 2002

   Health Groups Urge Reform of Food Allergy Labels
Industry Urged to Improve Manufacturing Practices

OTTAWA (June 12, 2002) - As 3,500 Canadians suffer from potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to common food ingredients each year, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other health groups today urged Health Canada to implement the food label improvements that it’s own officials recommended more than three years ago. The groups told Health Canada that those labels should clearly disclose the presence of sulphites, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, seafood, wheat and other common food allergens.

Current regulations allow companies to list some items in ingredient lists by non-specific class names (such as “seasoning,” “flavours,” “starch,” and “prepared meats”). Often, components of those items are common anaphylaxis-triggering allergens, or sources of gluten (such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, and triticale) which can be toxic for people with celiac disease.

“Health Canada deserves credit for efforts to eliminate regulatory loopholes that relieve food companies from disclosing, on food labels, the presence of some common allergenic food components,” said Bill Jeffery, National Coordinator of CSPI. “However, further delay in implementing these relatively straight forward regulatory changes can’t be justified.”

An estimated 2% to 8% of children, and 1 to 2% of adults in Canada have immune-system-mediated allergies to common foods. About a dozen of the estimated 3,500 annual anaphylactic reactions to food in Canada result in death — which can occur even if epinephrine is administered within minutes. It is estimated that one in 250 Canadians is gluten intolerant (i.e., has celiac disease). For them, ingesting even small amounts of wheat, barley, rye, etc. can cause malabsorption of nutrients and, with long term exposure, increase the risk of a number of diseases including severe osteoporosis and some forms of cancer.

“The only way to avoid the potentially life threatening effects is to completely avoid the offending foods — even in trace amounts,” said Jeffery.

The groups’ letter to Health Minister Anne McLellan also recommends that ingredient list format rules be established — much like those Health Canada proposed in 2001 for nutrition labels. Readable ingredient lists are necessary to help allergy-sufferers and all consumers choose or avoid foods with particular ingredients with health implications (including food allergens, but also health-promoting fruits, vegetables and whole grains). Current label rules permit ingredient lists to be printed in lettering as small as 1.6 millimetres tall (0.8 mm — eight tenths of one millimetre — on small packages) and use poor colour contrast.

The submission offers Health Canada a model ‘Ingredient Facts’ box that was designed by the award winning design firm, Greenfield-Belser — the firm contracted to design the ‘Nutrition Facts’ box now in use on food labels in the US for eight years. “Food label space often occupied with contest entry forms, recipes, and other marketing gimmicks should make way for clear, objective information for consumers, especially information with important health implications,” said Jeffery.

“The proposed label changes have been in the works for a long time. Some food industry participants in the policy formation process have been, at times, slow to recognize the importance of these issues and at other times just plain obstructionist — particularly in relation to matters concerning reporting sources of gluten for those with celiac disease,” said Marion Zarkadas, who spearheaded the proposal before she retired from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2000.

“Health Canada should quickly enact the label rule changes, then turn its attention to ensuring that employees in food production facilities are adequately trained in food hypersensitivities, and that allergy prevention plans are built into existing food safety systems on production lines to reduce the risk of accidental cross-contamination by allergenic ingredients,” said Zarkadas. Last year, the CFIA issued 258 food recalls concerning the presence of undeclared allergens.

“The use of ‘precautionary statements’ on food labels (like ‘May contain nuts.’) should only be used in situations where best manufacturing practices cannot eliminate all risk of contamination,” stated Mary Allen, Interim CEO of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. “Whenever the ‘may contain’ warning appears on a label, it eliminates a food option, not just for allergy-sufferers but also for their families, classmates, co-workers and friends who opt not to purchase that product,” she said.

CSPI is a consumer health organization with offices in Ottawa and Washington. CSPI’s Canadian advocacy is funded by 125,000 subscribers to the Canadian edition of Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI does not accept industry or government funding.

Marion Zarkadas, M.Sc., RD, is a retired Policy and Legislation Officer at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and lead author of “Common Allergic Foods and Their Labelling in Canada — A Review” published in the Canadian Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 1999. She presently serves on the Professional Advisory Boards of the Canadian Celiac Association and the Allergy/Asthma Information Association

Mary Allen is Interim CEO of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association and has dealt with serious food allergies in her own family.

CSPI Canada