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Food industry calls on the Government to strengthen the food rules and regulations

13 May 2009 956 views No Comment

TORONTO — Canada’s food industry says it’s concerned about its ability to bring new products to market and blames an out-of-date regulatory regime for making it difficult to keep pace with what’s occurring in other countries.

The industry group Food & Consumer Products of Canada released a report Wednesday calling on the federal government to speed up the decision-making process on approvals for food additives and health claims for food products.

“We’re not looking here at all for less regulation,” said Nancy Croitoru, president and CEO of the trade association representing companies that manufacture food and consumer products.

“What we’re looking for is smarter regulation so that we can really provide Canadians with the healthy products that are now available out there.”

Croitoru said she would be meeting Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on Wednesday to discuss the report.

Josee Bellemare, press secretary to Aglukkaq, said the government welcomes the report and is reviewing it.

“Our government is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians by providing reasonable controls on the addition of vitamins and mineral nutrients to foods,” Bellemare said in an email Tuesday.

“We are considering updating the Food and Drug Regulations to reflect the latest nutrition recommendations. This is being done to protect consumers from excessive vitamins and mineral nutrients in foods, while allowing more choice of fortified foods.”

The food organization represents about 80 per cent of products that are on grocery store shelves.

The link between diet and health is much clearer today than it’s ever been, Croitoru said in an interview.

“We are watching as slowly every country in the world is taking over the production and distribution of new, innovative healthy products as we’re lagging further and further behind,” she said.

“Slowly our industry is shutting down, and 10 to 15 years from now, we won’t have an industry that can provide innovation into the market and bring new products to market.”

Currently, when a company submits an application, it can take two, three or even five years – and they don’t know where it ranks in the queue, she said.

“On the food approvals side, there is not a transparent process. It doesn’t exist right now, and that’s one of the things we’re asking for,” said Croitoru. “Put in an approvals process that’s transparent, that has timelines, that people are held accountable for.”

Croitoru noted that sterols, derived from plants, are proven to reduce cholesterol and are permitted as additives in foods such as margarines and yogurts in the European Union, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Africa.

But one of the case studies in the new report details Unilever’s unsuccessful attempts to bring a margarine fortified with plant sterols to market in Canada.

Bruce Holub, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph, has done a lot of research in the area of omega-3 fatty acids. He agreed there are certain barriers preventing so-called functional foods from coming “to the forefront.”

“It’s a very hot topic because the potential for health-care cost savings using foods as a preventive strategy, I think, are absolutely tremendous,” he said.

But Holub noted that one difficulty for regulators is determining how much of an additive should be permitted in foods.

“I think their rationale might be that you eat several servings of different foods each day, and if each one has the maximum high levels of these active ingredients, there might be a potential in some cases of overdosing,” he said.

“Whereas if you take it in a supplement form, in a capsule or tablet, at least you know you’re dealing with a concentrate and so the consumer has to be responsible in that regard.”

Croitoru noted that Health Canada allows probiotics to be added to foods, such as yogurt. But since products can’t carry health claims, consumers aren’t aware that some health experts say probiotics may provide benefits to the gastrointestinal system.

As for omega-3 fatty acids, Holub said there’s good literature to suggest that 900 milligrams of EPA plus DHA per day can reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death for those with coronary heart disease by up to 45 per cent.

“These are based on supplement studies,” he said.

“Now, the government’s not going to allow you to put 900 milligrams of EPA-DHA omega 3 in a foodstuff – I think the maximum in most foods that you’re allowed to add currently in Canada is 100 milligrams,” he explained.

“So I guess the challenge is what do you say about a food when it has one-ninth the amount that is found to be efficacious based on supplement studies.”

Larry Martin, a co-author of the report, called on the government to change its regulatory processes so that food companies can get a decision as quickly as possible, even if the decision is no.

In terms of requests to allow sterols added to food, he noted that companies haven’t been rejected.

“You don’t get turned down,” he said. “You just don’t get an answer.”

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