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Canada’s food labeling rules of room for confusion

9 July 2009 1,869 views No Comment

If a blouse is made with cotton imported from China but sewn together in Canada, should it be allowed to carry a “Made in Canada” label?

If the blouse were a juicy burger made with U.S. beef, the answer would be yes under the labelling rules that govern Canada’s meat supply.

Meat that is imported from countries such as Brazil or Australia does not have to be labelled as foreign if it is processed at a Canadian plant before reaching stores. The country of origin of beef caught national attention last week after Loblaw Cos. Ltd. announced a recall of President’s Choice brand beef products that were imported from the United States.

In fact, a company selling imported meat that goes through a domestic processing plant can choose to label the products as “Made in Canada from imported ingredients.”

If an animal is imported into Canada and slaughtered in this country, its meat doesn’t have to be labelled as foreign and can qualify for a “Made in Canada” label. The same goes for imported meat that is made into salami at a Canadian plant.

The only time foreign meat products must carry a country of origin label is if they arrive in Canada ready to be consumed and bypass domestic processing plants, said James Shideler, veterinary program specialist with the western division of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

So at a time when the Canadian appetite for local food has exploded, figuring out a product’s origin can still be a challenge for consumers.

Last year, the federal government announced changes to Canada’s country-of-origin labelling rules in order to quell criticism that they were too lax and allowed foreign goods to be labelled as domestically produced. But some experts who study food labelling said the updated rules are too confusing to be useful to consumers. There remain numerous labels food companies can use to identify the origin of their product.

To guarantee that an item is truly Canadian, it must say “Product of Canada.” This term can only be used on food products that are made, processed and packaged in this country. The rule allows products to contain a small amount of foreign content, such as additives or spices that may not be available in Canada, but the total should not exceed 2 per cent of the product’s content, according to the CFIA.

If a food product carries a “Made in Canada” label, chances are a significant amount of the ingredients came from outside the country. Products can qualify for a “Made in Canada” label if they are processed or put together in Canada, even if some or all of the ingredients are imported.

But food companies that use those words must also make qualifying statements that can help consumers figure out how much of the product is foreign. Products that say “Made in Canada from imported ingredients” contain a substantial amount of foreign material. Products that say “Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients” contain a mix of ingredients from Canada and other countries. But food manufacturers do not have to tell consumers the countries where the ingredients originated.

Food companies can also use other labels on imported products that could make them seem domestic. For instance, foreign products can say “prepared in Canada,” “processed in Canada” and “refined in Canada” as long as they are “not misleading for consumers,” according to the CFIA. In addition, coffee beans that are imported can say “roasted and blended in Canada.”

“Packaged in Canada” can be used on goods that are imported and packaged here; “distilled in Canada” can be used on foreign products that are distilled here; and “canned in Canada” can be used on foreign products that are canned here.

How to tell where it’s from

Here’s a quick guide to navigate country of origin labelling in Canada:

Product of Canada: Label can be used if all or virtually all of the major ingredients, processing and labour used to make the product are Canadian. The amount of foreign content must be restricted to a maximum of about 2 per cent of the product’s content.

Made in Canada from imported ingredients: Label can be used when the product’s ingredients are foreign but the product undergoes “substantial” processing in Canada that changes the original nature of the product. For example, cookies manufactured in Canada using imported ingredients.

Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients: Label can be used when the product’s ingredients are a mixture of foreign and domestic, but the product is processed in Canada. For example, cookies manufactured in Canada using a combination of foreign and domestic ingredients.

Prepared/processed/refined/roasted and blended/packaged/distilled/canned in Canada: Label can be used on imported products to describe a function performed in Canada as long as the label is not misleading to consumers.

Source: Canadian Food Inspection Agency

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