Poorly Labeled Food Items: What are your rights?
Contributor Jackie White provides a fantastic look at just what you, the consumer, should expect from your food labeling, and what to do when it doesn't add up.
May 23, 2018
by Jackie White, Freelance Writer
The primary purpose of food packaging and labels is to inform consumers not only of the food items’ nutritional value and ingredients, but also of possible allergens and other potentially harmful information. All this data will enable the consumer to make an educated decision as to whether he can and will eat the product or not. Often, the situation arises whereby a consumer may come to the conclusion that a food item is ‘off’ or poorly manufactured when it is actually the information on the packaging that is incorrect. If a product’s packaging displays incorrect information regarding, for example, allergens, eggs or nuts, the manufacturer could find himself in very hot water.
All allergens must be disclosed
Common allergens such as dairy, shellfish, eggs and nuts need to be clearly disclosed on all relevant packaging. Even if the product is merely manufactured in a factory that uses any of these components, consumers need to be advised, as cross-contamination via trace elements is always possible. It is estimated that seven percent of all Canadians have at least one food allergy, reiterating how vitally important it is to disclose all information pertaining to possible allergens.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has stringent regulations in place and will launch an investigation as soon as it becomes aware of a food-related hazard such as undeclared allergens. Appropriate action, such as recalling the product and fining the manufacturer, will be taken to protect the consumers as effectively as possible.
It does not end with allergens though
There has been a significant increase in would-be class-action suits that take misleading food labeling to task. This increase has, in part, been driven by a higher consumer demand for authentic labeling and overall healthier food options. As a consumer, you have a right to contest dubious information displayed on packaging. In Canada, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act stipulates that all pre-packaged consumer products, including food items, display accurate and informative labels that will enable the consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. This particular Act is administered by the Competition Bureau and failure to comply with it can lead to hefty fines being imposed as well as legal action by consumers.
In most provinces in Canada, consumer laws prohibit any misleading, deceptive or unfair business practices. This legislation is broad enough to be applicable to information displayed on packaging and labels, creating a private right of action for consumers. In short, if you feel that you were misled into believing that your breakfast muesli contains real fruit when, in fact, it doesn’t, you have the right to take legal action against the manufacturer. Concerns pertaining to the labeling of prepackaged food items must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. If the consumer is based in Quebec the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec deals with all related consumer affairs.
What about food originating in, or delivered to the U.S.?
South of the border, in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) is responsible for ensuring that all food products sold within the U.S. are not just safe to eat, but properly labeled. This applies to not only food produced within the U.S., but that from foreign countries as well. The FDA strongly enforces the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which applies to the labeling of food regulated by the FDA. There have been a number of lawsuits in the country, such as the one against Kraft Heinz for alleged misrepresentation after stating on its packaging for Parmesan cheese that it was ‘100% grated Parmesan cheese’ when, in fact, it contained a filler material made from wood chips. Consumer rights are strongly protected in all states with countless legal facilitators making their services available to help litigate consumer right violations.
Regardless of where your food items originate, you, as the consumer, have the right to be informed of the contents in an informative and honest manner. If you feel that your consumer rights have been violated at any point in time it is your right, and duty, to report the fact to the relevant authorities in your area so that the relevant steps can be taken to rectify the matter as soon as possible.