Understanding recent changes to Canadian food labelling

What “local” means: Understanding recent changes to Canadian food labelling
By Derek Ronde
January 30, 2014
What “local” means: Understanding recent changes to Canadian food labelling

It is commonplace to see the terms “local” or “locally grown” being used to describe items on a restaurant menu or products on a grocery store shelf. But what exactly do those terms mean? Does “local” mean that the product has to come from the same city? The same province? Given the global expanse of the food industry, if something is Canadian, is it local?

For the purposes of Canadian restaurants and food producers, these questions have been answered after some recent uproar regarding how the federal government interprets the term “local” in the context of certain food-related legislation.

In early 2013, Canadian media took notice of ongoing controversy pertaining to how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal agency responsible for food safety, has interpreted the term “local” in the context of food labelling. The CFIA has, at least for the near term, resolved this controversy by revising its interpretation of what “local” means and thereby providing clarification to food industry stakeholders who want to promote home-grown Canadian products.

Clarification was needed

The controversy surrounding the term “local” stemmed from the former CFIA policy that interpreted  the word for use in CFIA legislation such as the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and the Food and Drugs Act. This policy interpreted “local,” “locally grown” or other similar terms to mean that:

  • The food originated within a 50 km radius of the place where it was sold, or,
  • The food sold originated within the same local government unit or adjacent government unit.
This was an unhelpful definition, as the term “local government unit” is quite broad and includes “a city, metropolitan government area, town, village, municipality or other area of local government.” Given the disparity in size between “local government units,” there was a serious possibility of unequal treatment based on the municipality in which the product was being sold. Moreover, it did not appear that there was any particular logic to or reason behind the 50 km limit for the purpose of declaring whether a product was local or not.

CFIA revises definition

Confusion surrounding the CFIA’s interpretation of “local” came to a head in recent months as various restaurants and foodservice companies publicly challenged this interpretation. As a result, on May 10 this year, the CFIA announced that it has temporarily broadened its interpretation while it completes a larger review of its policies. A food product can now be labelled as “local” if it meets the following criteria:

  • It is food produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or
  • It is food sold across provincial borders within 50 km of the originating province or territory

In explaining the change in policy, the CFIA stated that its former approach was “outdated” and did “not reflect current food production practices or consumer needs and expectations.” Although there may be some questions regarding how the 50-km cross-border figure was determined, it is now fairly simple for restaurants and food producers to determine that food that comes from inside the province can be labelled “local.”

The CFIA has qualified this reinterpretation of “local,” however, and provided further guidance on how restaurants and food producers can assist their customers in respect of “local” product claims. First, the CFIA has noted that the reinterpretation is an interim policy, while it conducts the larger policy review. Second, the CFIA has encouraged restaurants and food producers to add qualifiers to the “local” label, such as the city or region of origin, in order to tell consumers where the product specifically comes from.

Proposed changes in Ontario legislation

For Ontario food producers and restaurants, this change in CFIA interpretation dovetails into prospective changes in food legislation in the province. In March 2013, the Government of Ontario reintroduced the proposed Local Food Act, meant to help expand the production and consumption of local food in Ontario. Importantly, the definition of “local food” in the Local Food Act generally mirrors the CFIA’s interpretation of “food produced or harvested in Ontario,” although the CFIA’s cross-border definition is broader. A similar definition of “local” on federal and provincial levels should help clarify what can be a confusing process for restaurants and food producers.

Food product labelling is a difficult exercise. For example, producers and sellers using terms such as “fresh,” “organic,” “homemade,” and “natural” should pay close attention to CFIA interpretations of what these terms mean. In light of this closely regulated environment, it is refreshing for those involved in the industry to have a clear, bright-line test as to whether a product is “local” or not, and these recent federal and provincial changes can help restaurants and consumers make informed choices about the food they buy.

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About the author

Derek Ronde is a partner at Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP, a law firm in Toronto, Ontario, and specializes in franchise law, including restaurant and foodservice franchise matters.

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