Canada. Beer industry exempt from new food-allergen labelling rules

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Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced revised food-labelling rules Monday which shield the beer industry from new allergen-label regulations.
Aglukkaq, at a grocery store to make the announcement, focused on how the new rules will make it easier for people with food allergies or celiac disease to identify ingredients and alert parents if a food or beverage contains “hidden” allergens, gluten sources and sulphites.
“All parents want to have confidence in the food they are serving their families, and these changes to food labels will make it easier for parents of children with food allergies to identify potentially harmful, if not fatal, ingredients in foods,” Aglukkaq said.
Aglukkaq also confirmed beer companies won a last-minute reprieve and will be exempted from labelling regulations, to come into effect in August 2012 to give food and beverage manufacturers time to change their labels.
She defended the move, saying brewers raised concerns about the government’s initial proposal, so she is “working through that” with new consultations. Aglukkaq declined to provide a time frame, but said she wasn’t prepared to postpone the whole labelling imitative in the meantime.
“I was not prepared to delay this another day. Today’s announcement is an exciting one — it changes food labelling so families and children will be able to trust the label that they read on the products that they buy everyday.”
Aglukkaq added: “I think if your children are drinking beer, you’ve got other issues to worry about. This is about children, this is about allergies.”
After working on the plan with industry representatives and allergy groups for more than a decade, Health Canada announced the labelling proposal in 2008, requiring food allergen or gluten sources to be written in a uniform way using commonly used words.
For example, the grains spelt and kamut would have to be declared as wheat. And if prepackaged food contains the ingredient “spices,” the food would be required to list any allergen, gluten sources or sulphites present in the spices.
Under the initial proposal, alcoholic beverages would still have retained their exemption from complete ingredient listing, but would have required to declare any food allergens, gluten sources or added sulphites on labels for beer, wine and spirits. This was aimed at people with celiac disease, which is characterized by an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, oats and barley.
After formal consultations with industry and health groups wrapped up, the final regulations — with no exemptions for beer, wine and spirits — were set to be published earlier this month with the full support of the food industry.
But a last-minute lobby campaign by the beer industry scuttled the announcement, and the Prime Minister’s Office became actively involved when the Brewers Association of Canada complained the proposed regulations would require them to state the obvious — that beer contains barley or wheat, so people with an intolerance to gluten already know they need to avoid beer.
The industry group also complained about the cost to change labels. For some small breweries, the cost would be very high as they print directly on re-usable glass bottles rather than paper labels.
Wine and spirits will still be subject to the new label regulations.
For example, if a food allergen is present in wine and spirits, as a result of the use of fining agents from eggs, fish or milk, the allergen source must be shown on the label of the prepackaged product.
Chris George and his family drove from St. Catharines, Ont., to Ottawa to laud the announcement, saying the labelling changes will mean “shopping is that much safer” for their family. George’s seven-year old son, David, is allergic to nuts and legumes, so it’s “absolutely necessary” that food labels are accurate and written in plain language, he said.
“We depend on our food producers, we depend on our food packagers to provide accurate labelling, so we know what the content is. We need to be 100 per cent sure. That is the reason why this announcement is good news for our family,” said George.
But Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada and mother of a son with multiple food allergies, was more tempered. Her group is “very pleased” with new regulations for food labels, but “very disappointed” in the special beer exemption, given there can be up to 40 ingredients in beer and the move goes against the advice of Health Canada’s own departmental advisers following lengthy consultations.
“I think the process with Health Canada was pretty transparent up until a few weeks ago, and unfortunately it became very political,” said Harada, who said she’s concerned about the lack of details and timeline for the new beer labelling consultations.
“That to me is a red flag.”