By Paul Hetherington
By Paul Hetherington
Trans Fat Task Force member and Baking Association of Canada president Paul Hetherington shares his thoughts on what the task force report means to Canada’s baking industry.
Q: So this is really happening?
A: This is one thing people have to understand: all that’s been accomplished is the conclusion of the report by the task force with regards to its recommendations to the Minister of Health. It’s a different government, a different minister than the one that originally called for the task force, so all we have right now are recommendations. And that’s something people have to be very cognizant of. We’ve had to deal a lot with the misconception here, people are thinking regulations are coming within a year or two and that’s not the case.
Q: But regulations are expected within a year or two?
A: Well, the key recommendation from the task force is a call for regulations of trans fats, both processed trans and, for commercially produced products it would actually encompass naturally occurring trans also. The recommendation from a time frame perspective is essentially a three to four year time frame. Two years to develop the regulations and then as many as two years, possibly more in certain challenged industries such as the baking industry, for industry to actually come into compliance. So, even if the government embraced the report and its recommendations, you’re looking at a three to four year window.
Q: So will this happen, will regulations happen?
A: You’re going to have to ask the Minister. I think regardless of what the government does, there is obviously the medical evidence that suggests the negative consequences of trans. So regardless of the actions of the government, it would be behoove the industry to actually start looking at utilizing low trans or trans fat-free ingredients. And a lot of the industry has already done that, many members across the country I’ve spoken with in the past two years have already done it. And on the bread side of the business, we’ve been out of trans since the late ‘90s with the switchover to canola or soy oil.
Q: Why the difference between the regulations for commercial and retail/foodservice?
A: There are two primary recommendations with regards to how food is prepared. For commercially produced product, those sold in the grocery store, those products are already in compliance with producing nutrition labels, nutrition facts tables. Therefore, since that information is already on the table, it was perceived as being very easy to monitor and to actually enforce whether or not those products were in compliance with whatever trans level was accepted. For products being produced by a retail baker, or foodservice operators, there’s recognition they’re not doing nutrition labelling, therefore being a question of how do you enforce trans fat regulations? So part of my position on the task force was: instead of forcing these small retail companies like bakers to implement some type of labelling and analytical process, it made far more sense to regulate them on their inputs. Now that, again, is part of the recommendations. One of the key things that people have to understand about the recommendations coming out of the task force is, it was not a broadbased, extensive consultation. We were selected based on the expertise we could bring to the discussion, but there are, as the task force report clearly identifies, gaps in our knowledge and understanding and those gaps have to be filled. When it comes down to areas like the enforcement, areas like the threshold, etc., there’s going to be a lot more additional work that’s going to be required and input that’s going to be solicited. And that will happen as part of the regulatory review process.
Q: So that could mean that regulations will look very different from these recommendations?
A: Anything is possible, but I would think that issues with regards to what the trans limit should be, I think moving off that five per cent number would be very challenging. Someone would have to develop some very serious evidence with regards to why that number should be different. Other areas such as the time frame, there could be new information brought forward that suggests the time frame should be shorter or longer.
Q: For the retail baker, doesn’t the responsibility lie ultimately with their supplier?
A: The push down is happening throughout the supply chain, starting with the consumers who are pushing back at the baker or the French-fry producer or whoever. They’re saying, ‘We want lower trans foods.’ And then that filters down through the supply chain, so the real focus will be on the suppliers to come into compliance with regards to the ingredients, should the recommendations be accepted into regulations.
Q: So for commercially baked baked goods, as well as retail, a small independent retail bakery, their limit of trans fats in their final product is the same, its five per cent for both of them?
A: The difference between the two is commercially produced is going to be regulated on the output, the finished product, while retail bakers are going to be regulated on the input, what they put into their products. Part of the issue that I raised during the consultation is how are you going to possibly enforce this regulation with the literally tens of thousands of restaurant, quick service, retail baker outlets that are across the country? Especially since these businesses, based on the recommendations, are going to be regulated on their inputs. So are we going to have some government agency running around checking the supply room of all the bakers to see, wait a minute, you have a shortening here that’s at 5.5 per cent? The enforcement angle is mind-boggling when it comes down to the smaller companies. For the product that ends up on the grocery shelves, it’s not such a great issue.
Q: During the task force meetings, was there any talk of assistance for industry?
A: That’s one of the issues that I did bring forward, the fact that industry changing over is a major undertaking, especially in the baking category. The task force did call for the government to provide assistance in developing alternatives, as well as assisting companies with regards to change-overs, especially small- to medium-sized businesses.
Q: Are these recommendations a good thing?
A: I think from a public health policy perspective, the medical evidence is very clear that trans fats aren’t good for us. The challenge we have as an industry is getting clear direction as to what are the better alternatives and ensuring that we don’t end up in the same situation 10 or 20 years down the road. And that, I would suggest, didn’t come out very clearly from the task force report.
Q: What should we expect next?
A: The report is with the Minister. I believe he’ll be presenting it to the Health Standing Committee and the committee will look at it. We’re in a minority government situation, so we could see opposition parties coming forward to put forth their own initiative in this. The Minister may embrace the report, he may call for more study, looking at those gaps that exist in the report. From an industry perspective, regardless of what the government does, I think the reality is consumers have already spoken. They’re saying they’re concerned about trans fats in their food and they’re looking for industry to reduce the trans as much as possible.v
To see a full copy of TRANSforming the Food Supply, the report put together by the Trans Fat Task force, go to: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/gras-trans-fats/