Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege today to speak to Bill C-398. Before I address the bill directly, I would like to commend the hon. member for Scarborough Southwest who has introduced a bill in every Parliament, as he said in his speech, since 1989 that requires the nutritional value of food to be clearly stated on packaged foods. His efforts, by the way, did contribute to new regulations that were published on January 1, 2003. I congratulate him on that.
The member is now asking Parliament to take the next step: consider mandatory labelling of nutritional information for raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood; require anyone selling food for immediate consumption to provide information on nutrients and/or calories; require percentage declarations of ingredients highlighted in words or pictures on the front panel of the label; and finally, require that the first three ingredients in the ingredients list be accompanied by a percentage declaration of the amount of the food.
As a mother also, as other hon. members said, yes, I do worry about what my kids are eating at McDonald's. However, I think we all have to go further and beyond that and look at some of the problems with the bill, not that it is not a good bill.
At the outset, I want the House to know that the government shares the hon. member's concern about fair and informative labelling of foods. In fact, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has recently conducted public consultations on a proposal to clarify the labelling and advertising of products with highlighted or emphasized ingredients, flavours or sensory characteristics.
To begin, I would like to acknowledge the significant amount of work that has already been done in the area of labelling food and the impact of the legislation on current policy.
On December 12, 2000, nutritional labelling became mandatory in Canada. The new regulations now require a nutrition facts table to appear on most prepackaged food sold in Canada.
The new regulations are the result of four years of work during which we did consumer research, heard from experts, and held broad consultations in the consumer, health, and food industry sectors. An external advisory committee was created to guide Health Canada throughout the process. It was a big undertaking.
The nutrition facts table gives information on calories and 13 key nutrients contained in every serving of food. The comprehensiveness of the information, and the presentation required, makes Canada a leader in nutritional labelling.
The nutrition facts table is an excellent way to inform Canadians about the food they eat. As well as being an effective source of information, the nutritional label helps improve the health and well-being of Canadians.
The food industry had the opportunity to take part in the process, but only saw the final version of the regulations on January 1, 2003. The industry has three years to meet the nutritional labelling requirements, and five years if sales are under a million dollars.
The new regulations represent an enormous challenge for many sectors of the food industry, because certain foods must be tested and new labels must be produced.These sectors need time to adjust. While some can spring into action very quickly to add the nutrition labelling format on their labels, others will need all the time provided under the regulations.
During the consultation process one the new regulations, consumers and dietitians both told Health Canada that the amounts of nutrients on the labels have to be correct. Ensuring that a nutrition label contains valid information requires the testing of many samples of each food over time to take into account factors related to variability, like the time of year, climatic conditions, soils and the feed given to animals.
The data do not exist for all products at this time. Because of the lack of information on nutritional composition, an exemption has been granted in the bill with respect to some food: raw, single ingredient meats that are not ground, meat by products, poultry meats, poultry meat by-products, and raw, single ingredient marine or freshwater animal products.
The industry is willing to produce precise data for nutritional labelling of poultry and seafood, but it must have the time to carry out the necessary analyses. There are many kinds of cuts of meat, and their fat content varies considerably depending on the grade of beef or the fishing season.
If the number of samples is not realistic, it must be examined to obtain uniform and accurate data.
Moreover, Bill C-398 introduces an economic perspective that is absent from the legislation and the criminal law on which the legislation is based. It provides for an exemption from certain requirements, as a function of sales. Such a change clearly establishes a precedent and its impact has not been evaluated.
Bill C-398 also requires the provision of information on the nutritional value of food served in restaurants and other outlets. The restaurant chains and franchises with standard menus, such as McDonald's, can easily provide nutritional information about the food they serve, something they already often provide on request, as does Subway, as other hon. members have already mentioned.
Other restaurants, however, do not have such strict requirements for food preparation. These restaurants often find it difficult, if not impossible, to give precise information about the nutritional value and calorie content of their meals. In such cases, feasibility studies would be required.
Moreover, the bill raises questions of jurisdiction. Restaurants and other service establishments are generally considered to be under provincial jurisdiction. Inspection is a provincial matter and is usually carried out by municipal inspectors. It is impossible to require the disclosure of nutritional information by such establishments without consulting the provinces and territories.
If this bill is passed, it would create new inspection requirements for the provinces—if they agree to do this work—and for federal inspectors if they do not.
My father owned a restaurant in my riding of Ahuntsic for 35 years. I know for a fact that it was the municipal authorities who did the food inspection in the case of my father's restaurant.
I also would like to say, as hon. members on the other side have said, that the restaurant association, with which I have had the opportunity to discuss this bill, and other colleagues have raised certain concerns. I am sure, as the hon. member has said, that maybe those concerns can be discussed in committee, but they are very serious concerns. I encourage the hon. member to perhaps sit one more time with the restaurant association and have another discussion on his bill.
As I stated, the CFIA has recently conducted public consultations on a proposal that would clarify the labelling and advertising of products with highlighted or emphasized ingredients, flavours or sensory characteristics. The object is fair labelling that provides clear and relevant product information for consumers and is not deceptive or misleading.
The government's labelling proposal would be made as regulations in the food and drug regulations, with an interim policy in the guide to food labelling and advertising.
The discussion paper includes a requirement for a percentage declaration for ingredients that have been highlighted on a label, like Bill C-398. However it does not include the requirement for the percentage declaration of the first three ingredients nor other ingredients. As it stands already, prepackaged foods in Canada are required to list ingredients in descending order by weight.
The CFIA's proposal follows the provisions for quantitative labelling of ingredients in the current general standard for the labelling of prepackaged foods established by Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is the international body responsible for establishing food standards. The proposal is similar to the standards established in the regulations of our trading partners, including the U.S.A., the E.U., Australia and New Zealand.
However there are reasons that Codex does not require the percentage of the first three and some other specific ingredients to be listed. One of the reasons is that the formula for these foods is proprietary information. Companies do not want to provide too much proprietary information on product formulas to the public and to competitors.
Because we are running out of time I will end by saying, as one other hon. member said, Canada has to look at the trade barriers that exist in order to qualify because we may have an unjustified trade barrier.
Even though I have quite a few reservations about Bill C-398, I applaud the intentions of the member for Scarborough Southwest to give consumers the information so they can made informed choices. His efforts to have Parliament debate this issue have already been applauded by all members of the House.