Food Labelling – Summary by Chris E

Last Monday’s WSIC meeting focused on something near and dear to all our hearts—and even nearer to our stomachs:


What’s really in the food we eat? And why do Canadians, living in one of the most well regulated countries in the world, still feel the need to ask this? WSIC’s guest speaker, Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumer Council of Canada, had some opinions about that, and so did our audience.

“Do you see any positive movement toward better labeling of genetically modified foods?” asked one listener. The answer to that isn’t simple, Whitehurst explained. The government has trouble determining a threshold for what constitutes genetic modification. Even if that threshold was clear enough domestically, we have no system for determining low-level genetic modification in foods we import. Nevertheless, interest from the public about this issue remains high, and it will not go away.


Predictably, there was a lot of talk about the XL Foods situation out west. Is the industry being relied upon too heavily to self-regulate? Whitehurst said no. There were government inspectors onsite in this case, he said. The fact that the problem was caught is proof that the system is working. Could the contamination have been caught faster? Perhaps. But our food-chain is massive, and it is not always possible to identify problems as quickly as we’d like.

(This might, however, give us pause to ask about how and why we import food from the places we do, says WSIC director, Terri Chu.)

There were questions about the wording of food labeling. Are all the ingredients in the foods we eat actually listed on the labels? Whitehurst suggested a bigger problem: labels written in such a complex way that even informed consumers don’t read them—or can’t understand them when they do. One of the major concerns right now is the increased population of people with serious food allergies, for whom thorough and clearly-worded food labels are crucially important. While improvements have been made in this area, more need to happen.

‘Organic’: does the word mean anything? There’s not a lot of law or regulation behind the use of that term, said Whitehurst. It’s defined by commercial associations. But it’s worth remembering that, if we were to ban all foods containing any trace of genetically modified ingredients, we’d lose two-thirds of the food on grocery store shelves. So what can be done? Whitehurst wasn’t sure, and the audience seemed frustrated by this.

An evening devoted to one topic turned out to be a discussion about many. We should not have been surprised: when it comes to the food we eat, we take things personally. And in a country like ours, with so many people to feed and so much food grown, imported and processed every day, there will be many issues to talk about. Monday night was a good start.

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