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Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos announces new food labeling in Ottawa on June 30. Canada will require that companies add nutrition warnings to the front of pre-packaged food with high levels of saturated fat, sugar or sodium, starting in 2026.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

After six years of contentious negotiations, Health Canada has officially finalized its plan to put warning labels on sugary, salty and fatty foods – including granting a last-minute exemption for ground meat.

The new rules will require packaged foods that contain more than 15 per cent of the daily recommended intake of sugar, salt or saturated fats to display a label flagging this for consumers. Health organizations say the move is historic, and an important step in fighting obesity and diet-related illness.

“Research shows that a simple, clear symbol on the front of food packages will help consumers choose foods lower in saturated fat, sugar and sodium,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Thursday.

The program won’t be fully implemented until 2026, a full decade after the government announced it – a long transition period Mr. Duclos said was necessary to give food companies time to comply.

The government unveiled its plan in 2016, as part of a suite of programs (including a new Canada’s Food Guide) to help Canadians move toward healthier diets.

About a quarter of Canadian adults are obese, and diet-related illness is a leading cause of death. Health Canada says diet-related disease costs the economy $28-billion a year.

But existing health messages about food, such as the “nutrition facts” table on product labels, have long been criticized as poorly designed and confusing.

The new black-and-white warning labels (which will be in addition to the nutrition facts table) feature a magnifying glass and “high in” ingredient information in simple, bolded text.

In Israel, where similar labels are already in use, over half of residents say they have changed their behaviour. A similar program in Chile has led companies to reformulate their products to make foods healthier.

The program has taken so long to implement in Canada in part because of fierce lobbying by food-industry groups.

This became clear in June, in a debate over ground meat.

After Reg Schellenberg, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, learned that Health Canada was planning to require some ground meats to display the label based on high saturated-fat content, his group helped co-ordinate more than 8,500 letters and e-mails sent to policy makers in Ottawa. The protest won the support of the Alberta government and the federal Conservative caucus.

The campaign appears to have had the desired effect. Health Canada’s plan on Thursday backtracked on its original proposal, granting ground meat an exemption – a decision Mr. Schellenberg describes as “the right choice.”

“To avoid all sorts of confusion – and to treat the two types of meat equally – we ended up with this result,” said Mr. Duclos, the Health Minister. “Which I believe is a result that both farmers and consumers will appreciate.”

Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada (FHCP), which represents many large food companies, has also expressed its concerns. In a statement, FHCP senior vice-president of public policy Michi Furuya Chang called the 2024 deadline “unrealistic.”

She also pegged the cost of the new labels to industry at $8-billion (both direct and indirect costs) – a far cry from Health Canada’s estimate of about $800-million.

The program, she said, will create further burdens on the industry “at a time when food and beverage manufacturers are already facing unprecedented challenges tied to inflation, labour shortages and COVID-related supply chain disruptions.”

But health organizations applauded the policy.

Diabetes Canada spokesperson Ann Besner said the labels “help make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

And Manuel Arango, director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, called the moment “historic.”

“It was a long and sustained effort,” he said. “But we’re very happy.”

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