Sarah Schmidt – Postmedia News

July 21, 2012

After discovering Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq quietly killed back in 2009 a departmental proposal to regulate trans fat levels in processed food, I wanted to find out if the issue was dead. After all, the department’s plan was drafted in accordance with a commitment from Aglukkaq’s predecessor, Tony Clement, to regulate if industry didn’t make enough progress under a voluntary program, tracked by Health Canada’s monitoring program. So, I filed an access to information to see if the issue was being discussed at Health Canada’s Food Expert Advisory Committee.

Turns out departmental officials wanted to revisit the issue after Aglukkaq quashed their 2009 proposal, so they solicited the advice of their external expert committee, established in 2010 to weigh in on such matters. In June 2011, the committee settled on a few recommendations: to renew monitoring of trans-fat levels in processed foods and send a “strong signal” to companies that regulations are on the table if levels don’t drop. Aglukkaq’s office confirmed this week that the recommendations have been rejected.

Sound familiar? Check out some recent examples of other solicited expert advice on food policy that has been ignored (and what other departmental commitments have been dropped):

Sodium: Aglukkaq prematurely disbanded her much-touted expert panel on sodium in December 2010. The Sodium Working Group was created in 2007 and had unveiled a plan in July 2010 to track, over the next five years, if companies were reducing the level of salt in processed foods. Then, last fall, Aglukkaq withdraw her support for a joint federal-provincial sodium-reduction plan, modelled on a key recommendation of the Sodium Working Group, to set up a monitoring system to track industry progress. She objected to the idea of outing food companies for failing to meet specific targets. After the Sodium Working Group was disbanded, Health Canada said it would rely on the Food Expert Advisory Committee for advice on the government’s sodium-reduction plans.

Food labelling: Last fall, the Institute of Medicine issued a report, developed at the request of the U.S. Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling for a “fundamental shift” in the way companies are allowed to present certain nutrition information on the front of food packages. Aglukkaq immediately shot down the idea and defended the way companies label their food products. The U.S. government science panel concluded proprietary front-of-package food labelling programs developed by food manufacturers and retailers should be scrapped and replace them with a single nutrition-rating system regulated by government. Since her department has a special team tasked with working to harmonize the front-of-pack food policies of Canada and the U.S., where the proposal is now under review, you can imagine how surprised officials at Health Canada were to see Aglukkaq’s comments. That’s what internal records released under access to information show.

Energy Drinks: Granted, Health Canada’s Expert Panel on Energy Drinks recommended some drastic steps to better regulate the energy-drink market. But the advice – to classify products like Red Bull, Rockstar and Monster as a “stimulant drug containing drink” to be sold under the direct supervision of a pharmacist – shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the department, given a key panel member penned an editorial calling for drug designation before the panel was convened. After sitting on the report for over a year, Aglukkaq finally announced she was rejecting the advice.

Whole Wheat: Five years after unveiling a proposal to end consumer confusion over “whole wheat” claims on bread products, Health Canada confirmed earlier this year it has no plans to change the food-labelling rule. The department identified a problem in January 2007, when it proposed revising food regulations to make it clear to consumers whole wheat is not necessarily whole grain. The standard for whole wheat flour in Canada’s food regulations, dating to 1964, permits the exclusion of five per cent of the wheat berry. This effectively means about 70 per cent of the germ is typically removed, so regular whole wheat bread can be made with flour with a significant percentage of the germ missing.

See a pattern?

© Postmedia News