When the federal government recently announced proposed changes to food labelling rules to stop companies from declaring foreign ingredients Canadian, Prime Minister Stephen Harper heralded the move as a major development for consumers who want to know the origin of their food.
But the new rules are already facing criticism from experts who say they don't go far enough and will still leave consumers in the dark.
Although companies would have to indicate that a product contains foreign ingredients, they still would not have to tell consumers where the goods came from or how much of the product is foreign.
Labelling has become a critical issue in recent years because consumers are more interested than ever in nutrition, safety, product ingredients and the origins of what they're eating.
"It's that depriving the consumer of the information that I find very frustrating," said John Cranfield, associate professor of food economics at the University of Guelph. "There are consumers who want to know where everything's from. ... It's just not clear to me from what I've seen the extent to which the new changes would accomplish that."
Details of the new legislation haven't been finalized yet, but under proposed changes recently outlined by the government, companies would only be able to use a "Product of Canada" label when virtually all ingredients are domestic. Dr. Cranfield said it's a much-needed step in the right direction to close a loophole that has allowed imported food products to be labelled as domestically produced.
But the new rules would also allow companies to use a "Made in Canada" label on food products with ingredients imported from other countries. Companies that do so would have to include a qualifying statement that the product contains foreign ingredients.
The change means that if a product is manufactured or processed in Canada, "regardless of the origin of the ingredients, it could use a 'Made in Canada' label," according to the government.
But Canadians who want to know where the foreign ingredients in their frozen fish, apple juice or jar of olives originated still would not be able to tell after looking at the label, said Sylvain Charlebois, associate professor of marketing at the University of Regina.
The similarity of the terms "Made in Canada" and "Product of Canada" may also confuse consumers who aren't aware of the difference between the two designations.
The fact the government is looking to improve food labelling represents major progress, Dr. Charlebois said, but added it will probably take years before labels contain all the information consumers want.
"I think when we look at a 'Made in Canada' policy for food labelling, we will have to make some compromises," Dr. Charlebois said. "What is likely to happen, I think, is we're likely to see an incremental approach to the full-blown 'Made in Canada' ideal."
Although consumers may want to know the origin of all ingredients in a particular product, it could be too difficult and onerous for companies to list all of the countries on a label, Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesman Marc Richard said.
But Dr. Charlebois said consumers are no longer willing to simply accept the word of food companies, and increasingly want all of the facts so they can make informed decisions.
"I think for the first time, say, in the last 30 years, the food industry needs to earn that [consumer] trust," he said. "For those consumers who do want to know, it's all about accountability, it's all about legitimacy and ultimately it's about trust."
Companies have typically shied away from providing significant amounts of nutritional or product-origin information to consumers because it can be an expensive undertaking, Dr. Cranfield said.
But if they are willing to go beyond government requirements and disclose from where they import their ingredients, they could attract the growing customer base that values that information, he said.
"They could capitalize from an economic point of view," he said. "More information is always better."