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Various photos of cereal box labels photographed Oct 22 2010 in Toronto (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Various photos of cereal box labels photographed Oct 22 2010 in Toronto (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Allergy sufferers fear beer lobby could kill new food labelling rules Add to ...

Food-allergy sufferers fear lobbying by the powerful beer industry will kill the federal government's plans to revise food labels to make the presence of potentially life-threatening ingredients easier to identify.

Efforts to make food labels clearer, and to highlight such ingredients as milk, fish, peanuts, nuts and sulfites that can cause extreme adverse effects in allergy suffers, have been going on for the better part of 20 years.

The government was also persuaded to require food manufacturers to point out the presence of gluten, which is contained in ingredients like wheat, rye and barley that can trigger the symptoms of celiac disease.

Former Health Minister Tony Clement announced in July 2008 that draft regulations had been completed and the new labelling requirements would be introduced after consultation with stakeholders.

But one of those stakeholders - the beer industry - took grave exception to the proposals, arguing that it would be costly to update beer bottles, especially those used by smaller breweries that are painted with the brand logo.

And that seems to have put the whole program on hold.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told groups representing allergy suffers in a letter this month that she remains committed to publishing the final regulations early this year.

But the food-allergy sufferers are not convinced.

"There's been a lot of negative media around the food-labelling regulations talking about the beer industry," said Laurie Harada, the executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada. "We do not want to see these regulations derailed for the sake of one industry."

Ms. Harada said the problem with the existing labels is that they are not clear. Sometimes, she said, they will list margarine as an ingredient but the margarines may contain milk that is not listed. And people who are allergic to milk will not know it is contained in what they are eating.

Egg can be listed as albumin. Seasonings may mean sesame seeds. And there are many other ways that potential allergens can hide.

"A food label that is accurate, clear, that a food consumer can make an informed decision about is essential," she said. "It's the first line of defence when you have a food allergy."

But Andre Fortin, a spokesman for the Brewers Association of Canada, said the costs to some small breweries of updating label to warn that beer contains wheat or barley could be millions of dollars because they would have to buy a whole new set of bottles.

"The celiac community is very aware that barley is contained in beer, it's the first thing that your doctor is going to tell you once you are diagnosed with it, it's one of the top three products to avoid on the Celiac Association's own website," said Mr. Fortin.

The Brewer's Association has been talking to Health Canada about a number of possible solutions, he said, including a possible exemption for the beer industry from the new labelling regulations.

But a representative of the Canadian Celiac Association said it is not true that all sufferers of celiac disease know that beer is made from barley and not all doctors know to warn their patients against it.

The government wouldn't say this week why the updated label regulations were taking so long or whether beer might be given an exemption from the labelling requirements.

More importantly, it also wouldn't say whether the entire re-labelling program has been derailed by the beer lobby's intervention.

Gary Holub, a spokesman for Health Canada, said in an e-mail: "We are currently in the consultation phase of the regulatory approval process regarding possible new mandatory labelling requirements for food allergens and we have consulted with a variety of stakeholders. We continue to consult and consider the feedback we have received."

But he declined to say how many stakeholders are involved, how many studies have been done, how many people are working on this, for how long and at what cost - or when the consultations are expected to end.

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