The U.S. is advancing provisions in NAFTA negotiations to limit member countries’ ability to affix warning labels to unhealthy foods.
This could be bad news for Canada – where the federal government announced plans in February to put warning labels on packaged foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
These labels, which would be prominently displayed on the front of packages, could be affixed on up to half of the foods currently on store shelves, the department said in February. Health Canada is currently consulting the public on what the labels will look like and expects the regulations to be finalized later this year.
The New York Times reported last week that an American provision seeks to limit any warning label, shape or colour that “inappropriately denotes that a hazard exists from consumption of the food or nonalcoholic beverages.”
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer confirmed that the U.S. was pushing for such measures in a briefing Mar. 21 at the House Ways and Means Committee, though he did not comment on its specific wording.
WATCH: Canada, U.S. at odds over food warning labels
“The idea of putting limits on the ability of countries to put warning labels or symbols on products is something that we are concerned about,” he said.
“There are lots of examples of countries that are using this loophole to basically create a protectionist environment.”
Health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor addressed the regulations Tuesday, saying that Canada was still planning to proceed with the new food labels. “We’re moving forward with respect to that area because we recognize that it contributes to the chronic health burden on this country,” she said. “(Foreign Affairs) Minister Freeland is in negotiations and we recognize that the tri-lateral agreements are very important and I certainly leave it to her to continue those negotiations.”
Food labels already differ country to country, she said. “In Canada for example, we have to make sure that all our labeling is bilingual.”
“Specific labeling requirements are needed for different countries so I’m certain that those are the types of things that will be discussed and I’m looking forward to hearing what the outcome is going to be.”
WATCH: Canadian Food Labels To Become More Truthful
Canada proposed the food labels in February as a way to give consumers quick and easy guidance on making healthy food choices and to hopefully help improve the nutritional quality of packaged food.
At that time, Heart & Stroke came out strongly in favour of the warning labels. Now, they’re concerned about the U.S. proposal. “We know that a simple, easy to understand approach to nutrition labelling is very important,” said Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy for Heart & Stroke.
“It’s very unusual for trade agreements to address these types of health issues. It’s not desirable, or necessary.”
He thinks that this is a case of food and beverage companies trying to use trade agreements to “interfere with the rights of countries to protect the health of their citizens.”
WATCH: Heart and Stroke Foundation concerned over U.S. seeking to stop Canada’s plans for food warning labels
Ronald Labonté, professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health, also believes that this provision is due to pressure from the food industry. “The food industry across all of the Americas are terrified that country after country will do much like countries have done with tobacco control and plain packaging,” he said. He believes they don’t want more countries like Chile, and now Canada, to adopt front-of-package warnings.
He also doesn’t believe that this kind of food labeling is protectionist, as Lighthizer said. “Protectionism is when you require a country to do something different in addition to what you yourself are doing,” said Labonté. If all foods, regardless of origin, are required to have those labels, then it can’t be protectionist.