By Jane Dummer
Two per cent of the adult population and five per cent of the child population in Canada have food allergies. People need to access a qualified allergist to determine if they have a food allergy, which requires a referral from a family physician. This leads individuals with food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances to avoid specific foods and ingredients.
What do proposed changes to food allergen labelling requirements in Canada mean to the consumer and the baking industry?
Two per cent of the adult population and five per cent of the child population in Canada have food allergies.
People need to access a qualified allergist to determine if they have a food allergy, which requires a referral from a family physician. This leads individuals with food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances to avoid specific foods and ingredients.
Food allergies and intolerances are ongoing public health issues that continue to challenge the health-care sector, the food industry and the Canadian public. An allergic person coming into contact with an undeclared allergen such as almonds in a cake may have symptoms that develop quickly and rapidly progress from mild to severe, including anaphylactic shock and death. For those suffering from celiac disease, the only current treatment is to maintain a strict gluten-free diet.
What is being done to address this health concern?
Sabrina’s Law has been in effect since 2005. This legislation requires Ontario school boards to adopt policies that include: training for school staff on dealing with life-threatening allergies on a regular basis; individual plans for pupils who have an anaphylaxis allergy; and emergency procedures for anaphylactic pupils.
The University of Toronto and McMaster University are conducting research studies related to Sabrina’s Law. U of T, led by Lisa Cicutto, PhD, is reviewing the effectiveness of Sabrina’s Law via a national study consisting of team members from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland; McMaster University – led by researchers Susan Elliott, PhD, and Nancy Fenton, PhD, RD – is researching the perceptions and experiences of Ontario students with anaphylaxis and their parents regarding school as a safe place.
Based on consultations with stakeholders, including allergy associations and the medical community, Health Canada developed amendments to the current regulations to enhance labelling requirements for specific priority allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites in prepackaged foods sold in Canada.
Health Canada published its proposed regulatory amendments in Canada Gazette, Part I, on July 26, 2008, to allow for a public and industry consultation period. The consultation period closed on Nov. 28, 2008. The comments from that period are being summarized and will be posted on Health Canada’s website. The estimated publish time in Canada Gazette, Part II, for the final amendments is June 2010.
What does this mean for the consumer?
Overall, these proposed measures should lead to greater clarity in food labelling, which will benefit Canadians with food allergies. Specifically, the proposed measure of using common language will be implemented. Marilyn Allen, a founding member of the group that preceded Anaphylaxis Canada and a consultant to the industry including Anaphylaxis Canada, suggests this is great news for the consumer.
“For example,” Allen explains, “milk sometimes appears on the label as casein or whey; with the new legislation, it will need to appear as whey (milk). Consumers are not food scientists. Reading labels shouldn’t require a detailed knowledge of the alternativee names for food components. This use of different terminology can be challenging for the average consumer. This new way of declaring the information should make it clearer without the guess work.”
What does this mean for the industry?
Allergen control programs are necessary in the food sector from the cottage industry to the multinationals, just as food safety programs are a given in the business. In Canada, the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) require that a complete and accurate list of ingredients appear on the label of most prepackaged foods. However, certain components of ingredients are exempt from declaration in the list of ingredients. As Allen stated in the example above, a prepackaged food product labelled listing casein or whey may be unsafe for food allergic consumers to milk. Therefore, changes to how priority allergens are labelled for pre-packaged foods in Canada will need to be implemented by the industry.
The following foods, or any of their protein-containing derivatives, are the allergens that will need to be declared under the new regulations: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios or walnuts; peanuts; sesame seeds; wheat, kamut, spelt or triticale; eggs; milk; soybeans; crustaceans; shellfish; or fish.
Also, the gluten source will need to be declared when a food contains gluten protein or modified gluten protein from barley, oats, rye, triticale or wheat, including kamut or spelt. And added sulphites will have to be declared when directly added to a food, when they are components of an ingredient not exempted from component declaration, or when the total amount of sulphites contained within the food is 10 parts per million or more.
The proposed amendments referring to the declaration of gluten sources will affect the baking industry. Currently, the definition of what is considered gluten sources is under scientific review and will be well defined at the point of implementation.
Another change the baking industry will need to keep a close watch on is the labelling of food “made on premises” and pre-packaged. An example in the industry includes bread made at an in-store bakery and pre-packaged, then labelled to provide clear information of the priority allergens. This information will be very specific when the final amendments are published in Canada Gazette, Part II. In the meantime, keep checking Health Canada’s website for updates on this process.