Thursday, February 18, 2010

Health Canada wants to fortify junk food on a global scale

(This is a companion piece to the news story I wrote for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Be sure to check it out. Some wonderful quotes from a very pleasant interview with Dr. Valerie Tarasuk from the University of Toronto and the article will provide a bit more in terms of explanation as to why this plan is so misguided than this blog post.)

Regular readers may remember a few months ago when I blogged about Health Canada's plan to allow the food industry to fortify junk food. That blog led to the story being picked up by the Canadian Medical Association Journal and then the mainstream media and ultimately led to a retraction of the policy.

I had thought the issue was dead and gone but apparently when Health Canada hit bottom on junk food fortification they began to dig furiously.

To explain the latest Health Canada nutritional debacle I need to provide you with some background into something called the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex for short).

The Codex was established in 1963 as a joint venture between the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization and even though you may never have heard of it before, it plays an integral role in the development of national nutrition policies the world over. Here's how Codex describes its role,

"The Codex Alimentarius, or the food code, has become the global reference point for consumers, food producers and processors, national food control agencies and the international food trade. The code has had an enormous impact on the thinking of food producers and processors as well as on the awareness of the end users – the consumers. Its influence extends to every continent, and its contribution to the protection of public health and fair practices in the food trade is immeasurable."
In 1985 the United Nations General Assembly stated that,
"When formulating national policies and plans with regard to food, Governments should take into account the need of all consumers for food security and should support and, as far as possible, adopt standards from the Food and Agriculture Organization’s ... and the World Health Organization’s Codex Alimentarius"
Basically the Codex serves as the reference standard for national nutrition policy decisions the world over and with 94% of the world's nations being members representing 99% of the global population there truly is no more important nutritional document on the planet.

Currently the Codex has a set of general principles for the addition of essential nutritients to foods (CAC/GL 09-1987 (amended 1989, 1991) that states that in terms of when it would be appropriate to fortify,
"There should be a demonstrated need for increasing the intake of an essential nutrient in one or more population groups. This may be in the form of actual clinical or subclinical evidence of deficiency, estimates indicating low levels of intake of nutrients or possible deficiencies likely to develop because of changes taking place in food habits."
Simply put, the Codex thinks that adding nutrients to foods should only be in response to true population based need. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

So what does Canada want to do? Canada is lobbying to have the Codex change their general principles on food fortification to,
"expand their applicability to include the discretionary addition of vitamin and mineral nutrients to foods for purposes beyond the prevention or correction of demonstrated deficiencies."
Translation? Canada wants the Codex to abandon the general principle that foods should only be fortified when there's a demonstrated population based need. Further translation? Canada wants allow for food manufacturers the world over to fortify food at their discretion.

So why would they want to do this? According to the discussion paper submitted by Canada it's because,
"changes in lifestyle and dietary habits have also prompted a growing interest by the food industry to provide consumers with a wider selection of fortified foods"
Another arugment in favour of allowing for by definition unnecessary fortification is that some jurisdictions have already allowed for this type of fortification.

Great arguments those. Let's change the Codex so that the food industry can sell consumers a bushel full of fortified junky foods because there have been a few member countries where this is already occuring. What's next? The police lobbying to increase speed limits on highways because there are already a bunch of speeders?

Looking into the history of the Codex one finds quite quickly that preventing willy-nilly food fortification is one of it's seminal reasons for Codex' existence. In their own backgrounder the Codex refers to the "Problem of Food Additives" as being a contributor to its inception and quotes a 1955 joint WHO/FAO expert committee on nutrition as stating,
"the increasing, and sometimes insufficiently controlled, use of food additives has become a matter of public and administrative concern"
I suppose Canada disagrees.

The Canadian proposal notes,
"The Principles aim to prevent the indiscriminate addition of esential nutrients to foods thereby decreasing the risk of health hazard due to essential nutrient excesses deficits or imbalances."
That's actually a direct quote from the General Principles. It's the fourth bullet Looking back at the current General Principles document it's interesting to note a sentence the Canadian revision proposal leaves out. The fourth bullet doesn't end with that first sentence, it goes on to state that by preventing the indescriminate addition of nutrients to foods,
"This will also help to prevent practices which may mislead or deceive the consumer."
I guess Health Canada doesn't care as much about the consumer as it does about the manufacturer.

When I questioned Health Canada about this on behalf of the CMAJ I received the response,
given the increase in food-like fortified products entering the market, it is the responsibility of Health Canada to develop a framework to manage the safety of these products effectively
and that the review of Codex’ general principles will serve to allow for a debate at the international level as to the types of constraints that need to be placed on voluntary fortification.

Some however might wonder why it is Health Canada, when faced with a global epidemic of obesity and literally tens of thousands of supermarket products, is hoping to enable the world’s food manufacturers to produce more “food-like” substances and potentially shift dietary consumption away from healthier whole-food choices.

Broccoli is after all, already very well fortified.

[Interesting side note. The current initiative on the part of Health Canada is being led by Christina Zehaluk. I emailed Christina to ask for an interview and she agreed saying she'd be pleased to speak with me but that I'd have to go through Health Canada's Strategic Communications Directorate first. They refused to allow me to interview Christina or anyone else for that matter with the Health Canada spokesperson stating,
"I have tried my best to locate a suitable spokesperson to speak on the topic, but unfortunately none are available."
So instead of letting me speak with the head of the file and someone who reported to me she'd be happy to chat, instead they took nearly a month to answer 8 questions I had to send them via email. Your tax dollars at work.]