Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Health Canada's Next Debacle?

First we were handed a Food Guide that encouraged Canadians to consume cancer-causing red and processed meat, metabolic syndrome promoting refined carbohydrates, all the while giving no guidance whatsoever on how to control, look for, or understand obesity inducing calories.

So what now?

Currently Health Canada is in the midst of a "public" consultation process involving whether or not to increase the available claims that Big Food can place on packaging and thereby create as Dr. Brian Wansink would state, a Health Halo around the food and of course in so doing, increase its sales.

The consultation process is entitled, "Managing Health Claims for Foods in Canada: Towards a Modernized Framework" which by itself to me is worrisome as I'm not sure what "modernized" means but I'm pretty sure it's not synonymous with "evidence-based".

So what are we talking about here?

According to Health Canada a health claim is,

"any representation that states, suggests, or implies that a relationship exists between a food (or a constituent of that food) and health."
So what's the issue here?

Well of course Big Food wants it to be easier to put claims on foods while health professionals like me and nutritional advocacy groups like the Centre for Science in the Public Interest want it to be more difficult.

It absolutely boggles my mind that Health Canada has determined that we need a 2 year long process to sort out what's more important - the interests of industry or the interests of health?

In the 124 page discussion paper they spell out this conundrum directly on page 11 and although it's a long quotation, I'm going to put it all in,
"Some stakeholders feel that current standards are too uniformly rigorous, and should vary according to the level of risk represented by the product and the nature of the claim. This view is supported by industry pressure worldwide and, in Canada, by current application of the newly introduced Natural Health Products Regulations. According to this view, consumers would benefit from access to safe food products carrying health claims, even when their health benefits cannot be demonstrated with a high level of certainty.

Others believe that application of clear, consistent, high standards of evidence is the cornerstone of a credible health claim system. Their view is supported by international standards, by research that shows that consumers do not differentiate among claim wordings and do not necessarily respond to disclaimers and qualifications, and by concern that less well-substantiated claims may need to be withdrawn at a later date, and which may erode public confidence in the system.

Health Canada is seeking input on the appropriate level of substantiation for claims in light of the obligation not to mislead consumers.
My jaw hurts from hitting the floor every time I read those paragraphs.

So to paraphrase - Big Food is pressuring Health Canada to allow unsubstantiated health claims on food that international standards, a credible health care system and peer-reviewed research have shown consumers naively would accept whether accurate or not AND YET Health Canada is holding 2 years of public consultations to figure out which view to listen?

Wow that's messed up.

Stay tuned Monday to learn more about the actual consultation process from someone who's had the intestinal fortitude to sit through one of the regional consultation meetings.