Hon. Mark Eyking (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food (Agri-Food), Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, it is good to see many people in the House concerned about the dairy industry.
I am pleased to rise today to debate Bill C-340, the dairy terms act, as proposed by my colleague, the hon. member for Saskatoon--Wanuskewin. The issue, a very important one today, is food labelling.
The hon. member has raised some very important points about labelling of dairy and dairy food products, valid points that are shared by dairy industry producers and by me. I would like to tell members that I have many dairy farms in my riding and I also have a very large dairy processing plant, so this is very important to me too.
A number of questions can be asked about dairy terms on labels of foods that may contain little or no dairy products. What about a product that claims to taste buttery but has no butter? What if it has a butter flavour?
I understand that dairy producers feel that the current federal labelling regulations are not adequate for protecting dairy products. Many dairy farmers in my riding have brought this up to me. They are concerned about the ability of existing federal legislation to protect their interests with respect to the use of dairy terminology on non-dairy foods. Their concerns are legitimate and our government is working toward a solution that will help address this issue.
I will explain more on that in a moment, but this issue is larger than just dairy products. Yes, the Government of Canada wants a solution for dairy, but we need a solution for all natural products.
There are three points that we must keep in mind during this debate.
First, there are many stakeholders who have an interest in how ingredients are represented on labels. Among these stakeholders are the food processors, importers, retailers and industry associates, to name just a few. There are other issues that stakeholders want to consider when it comes to product labelling. These issues include constraints of innovation, significant additional costs and administrative burden on our industry.
Second, the labelling of food products has repercussions on international trade. Any changes to the labelling of products must be consistent with our obligations under NAFTA and also the WTO, for example.
Third, there are other food producers that are also concerned that labels on food may refer to ingredients and flavours that have little or no connection to the actual product. What about maple flavoured products that have no maple, or honey flavoured without honey, or even chocolate flavoured without chocolate? We cannot regard the issues raised by the dairy terms act in isolation from similar concerns about other kinds of food products.
As members can see, this is a very complex issue and the government is taking it very seriously. In fact, the CFIA is seeking a solution to address labelling for all food products. It seeks to give consumers products that are labelled in such a way that consumers can make informed decisions. The CFIA has been consulting on proposals for highlighted ingredients and flavours, which would be applied to all types of ingredients and foods.
Consultations took place between January and April of last year and again between July and September. There were also two more workshops held on labelling issues, last November in Toronto and again in January in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. In addition, CFIA has conducted bilateral meetings with stakeholders and has commissioned a consumer survey, because at the end of the day we have to sell our products to the consumer.
In other words, the government is already proceeding in a very thorough and methodical fashion to address the clarification of food labelling in the broader context of labelling of all food products, not just dairy products.
To launch this first consultation, the CFIA released a discussion paper addressing the broad spectrum of food labelling issues. The discussion paper contained three proposals that address the same types of issues raised by the proposed bill from the hon. member.
First, when ingredients or components are highlighted, whether a high or low amounts, a percentage of the ingredient as added into the food must be declared either on the front panel or ingredients list.
Second, when the highlighted ingredient is a flavour or an artificial flavour, the words “flavour” or “artificial flavour” must appear adjacent to the named flavour. Let me give an example: “butter flavour” or “artificial butter flavour”.
Third, when an ingredient or a component name is used to describe the sensory characteristic of a food, that special characteristic must be stated adjacent to the description, for example, “creamy texture”.
In an analysis of this discussion paper and subsequent consultations, the CFIA heard many different points of view. It received input and advice from food processors and from the producers, of course, and from importers, distributors, industry associations, provincial governments, health professional associations, and also consumer associations and the consumers themselves.
In other words, the solutions that will emerge from this process will be built upon a wide consensus among different stakeholders involved. These consultations may result in changes to labelling policies through regulatory amendment, but these changes have not yet been finalized. It is a work in progress.
The challenge is to clarify food labelling rules without creating a proliferation of acts and regulations each designed to address a different food. Today it is the dairy terms act. What will it be tomorrow? The maple terms act? Or the honey terms act or the meat terms act?
CFIA's approach is in keeping with the Government of Canada's policy on smart regulation. What we should create is a regulatory process that results in the greatest net benefit to farmers and Canadian society while weighing the benefits of alternatives to regulation.
The process is now in place to improve product labelling systematically. It is open to the public for input. It puts forward proposals that would be in keeping with the current standards of labelling of prepackaged foods. The hon. member mentioned the international tests. We always have to keep that in mind.
The hon. member has put forward this bill with the support of dairy producers. I think it is a very good gesture in itself. Despite their active involvement in the consultation process on this issue with CFIA, it would appear that the dairy producers want to push for a stronger mechanism for additional protection for dairy terms according to their own priorities.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot push for a balanced, thorough approach of labelling food as represented by the consultation process and at the same time pass the bill before us today.
I thank the member very much for bringing this up and for speaking on behalf of dairy farmers and bringing this forward in the House. For my part, I stand by the process that we have in place and the solutions that are going to be passed through CFIA, a process that has dairy producer associations very much as participants.
I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting the current CFIA approach to address food labelling, which means they should join with me in voting against the bill.
Subtopic: Dairy Terms Act