The impact of antiquated government labelling requirements are disproportionately punitive to small manufacturers, discouraging innovation, and favours unhealthy animal-based products.
This is highlighted by the Canada Food Inspection Agency’s recent crackdown on a tiny Ontario company specializing in manufacturing vegan, dairy-free cashew “cheeses.” That company, Zengarry Cashew Cheeses, now faces weeks of bureaucratic wrangling that will at best hold up its expansion plans and cost the sole owner thousands of dollars, and at worst could shutter the business.
Zengarry clearly labels its products as “cashew cheese” and “dairy-free”. Zengarry was ordered by CFIA to change its business and product name so that it did not include the protected word “cheese,” claiming that cheese must be made from animal milk, and the term “cashew cheese” would mislead consumers.
Meanwhile, other protected words like “milk” and “butter” are commonly used on labels for “peanut butter”, “almond butter”, and “coconut milk” without confusion. The CFIA has not attempted to enforce labelling regulations against such products for use of protected words, and appears to be singling out Zengarry.
While Zengarry owner Lynda Turner was told by CFIA inspectors that they had received no complaints against her business, and her CFIA product testing came back with no concerns, the CFIA ordered her to complete two Corrective Action Plans – one to address manufacturing processes, and a second to address changing her business and product name so that it did not include the protected word “cheese” – within a matter of weeks.
“I received an email informing me that I had to stop using the word “cheese” on my label since my product was not made of milk. I was told that by using the term ‘cashew cheese’ on my label, I was identifying my product as cheese and that it does not meet the cheese compositional standard under section of B.08.003(1) of the FDR and as such, would be in contravention of section 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act,” Turner says.
The act states
“No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.”
Turner, a government scientist on unpaid leave for one year to expand her business, has been diligent to ensure her business complies with relevant laws at all levels of government. She now must drop her expansion efforts and instead grapple with paperwork and regulations that she says are beyond her capacity. even as a bureaucrat. She says she asked if any resources were available to help small business owners with compliance, and was told that she was on her own.
“The plans required and the deadline provided are unrealistic for small business owners. The average lay person has no hope of interpreting these requirements on their own,” Turner says. “While I 100% support the objective of securing food safety for Canadians, the process creates an unfair advantage for large industries with deep pockets, and puts undue stress on small businesses trying to produce natural, healthy products.”
Turner has requested an extension to complete the two Corrective Action Plans, as well as to postpone the requirement of a new name and labels as she has thousands of dollars invested in current inventory.
The Plant Foods Council, a new organization that seeks to protect and promote the interests of plant food manufacturers in Canada, and educate the public about eating plant-based foods, asserts that the traditional animal food products in this category not only enjoy a deep and abiding cultural history with consumers, but also benefit from large government subsidies, powerful trade associations, a favoured bias in current labeling regulations and support from industry-funded nutrition associations.
Health Canada and the CFIA for their part would seem to agree that the regulations require updating: The agencies are seeking feedback on options to change food labels and modernize the food labelling system. Specific options, such as expanding food class names (i.e., “vegetable oil” or “flavour”) are proposed in an online survey for comment that’s available until June 30, 2015.
Nobody is sure why CFIA has taken such a keen interest in Zengarry, but this not the first time a plant-based manufacturer has been singled out. In 2014, the CFIA forced Seattle-based Field Roast, which makes vegan grain meats, out of the Canadian marketplace. The company was required to reformulate its products to mimic the nutritional profile of animal meat, a long and expensive process.
The Plant Foods Council is asking Health Canada and the CFIA to amend regulations to:
- Recognize and regulate the term “vegan” as a descriptor of plant-based products.
- Allow the use of terms like “cheese”, “milk”, and “butter” to describe plant-based products.
- Remove the requirement that plant-based meats must have the same nutritional profile as animal meats.
“Plant-based products like grain meats, vegan cheeses, and soy milks are now pervasive in the Canadian market place. Food labeling regulations that prohibit calling a product ‘cashew cheese’ or ‘soy milk’ are out of step with the way consumers think about and refer to these foods. Health Canada and the CFIA must take immediate steps to modernize labeling regulations to reflect this reality and end the discrimination against plant-based foods,” says Camille Labchuk, a director of the Plant Foods Council.
Anyone who is interested in protecting the innovative and delicious products that vegan and vegan-friendly business are providing should fill out the survey, and consider joining the Plant Foods Council either as an individual member, or as a manufacturer.