General principles for labelling and advertising
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- Overall impression created about a product
- General principles
It is the responsibility of regulated parties to comply with the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR), the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) and the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR). Among other purposes, these acts and regulations are intended to enable consumers to make informed food choices based on information that is truthful and not misleading.
Two broad prohibitions apply to all information provided in food labelling or advertising:
Subsection 5(1) of the Food and Drugs 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.
Subsection 6(1) of the Safe Food for Canadians Act states:
It is prohibited for a person to manufacture, prepare, package, label, sell, import or advertise a food commodity in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, quality, value, quantity, composition, merit, safety or origin or the method of its manufacture or preparation.
Subsections 6(2) and (3) of the SFCA further clarify that a food commodity that is labelled, packaged or advertised in contravention of the SFCR is considered to be labelled, packaged or advertised in contravention of subsection 6(1) of the SFCA, and therefore in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression.
Subsection 199(1) of the SFCR identifies specifically some, but by no means all, of the ways that labels can mislead with respect to net quantity and composition. "False, misleading or deceptive labelling" includes, but is not limited to,
- any representation in which expressions, words, figures, depictions or symbols are used that may reasonably be considered to qualify the declared net quantity or that is likely to deceive a consumer with respect to the net quantity of a consumer prepackaged food, and
- any representation that implies or may reasonably be regarded as implying that an ingredient is present when it is not.
Subsection 199(2) of the SFCR also provides the example that "false, misleading or deceptive selling, importing and advertising" includes advertising a consumer prepackaged food that is labelled in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or likely to create an erroneous impression.
These prohibitions apply to information that must be included on food labels in accordance to legislative and regulatory requirements, as well as representations communicated on a voluntary basis on either the food label or in advertising.
An official version of the applicable legislation can be found at Acts and Regulations.
Overall impression created about a product
All information on food labels or in advertisements, including words, pictures, vignettes and logos, will contribute to the overall impression created about a product. The individual components on food labels or in advertisements, as well as the overall impression created when the components are viewed together, all contribute to the overall compliance of food labels and advertisements.
In some situations, certain components of a label or advertisement may become misleading when used in conjunction with other components. For example, a heart symbol on its own may be interpreted as showing affection, which is acceptable. However, if the same heart symbol is placed beside a third party endorsement about the product's effect on heart health, the combined effect may likely create an overall impression in relation to the product's merit on heart health. For more information refer to Heart symbols and heart health claims.
All labelling information that is provided on food labels or in advertisements, as required by legislation, must be accurate, truthful and not misleading. For example:
- ingredient lists must accurately reflect the contents and their relative proportions in a food
- Nutrition Facts tables must accurately reflect the amount of a nutrient present in a food
- net quantity declarations must accurately reflect the amount of food in the package
Voluntary labelling information – claims and statements
Information that is provided voluntarily on food labels or in advertisements is often referred to as a claim. This may include any specific claims such as "Product of Canada," "Low in fat" or "Fair trade," as well as any other text or wording about specific manufacturing processes, descriptions about certain ingredients or properties of the food, historical references, environmental statements, etc. It also includes images, pictures or other visual representations, or any combination of these.
The international standard setting body Codex Alimentarius defines a claim as:
Claim: any representation which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular characteristics relating to its origin, nutritional properties, nature, production, processing, composition or any other quality [Codex Alimentarius, 2009].
In general, claims may be made about various aspects of a food, providing they are truthful, not misleading nor likely to create an erroneous impression, and that they are in compliance with any specific requirements that exist for a given type of claim.
Certain claims, such as those relating to nutrient content, organic, kosher, halal and certain disease-risk reduction claims, are subject to specific regulatory requirements in addition to the prohibitions in the FDA and SFCA.
For many claims that are not subject to specific regulatory requirements, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and/or Health Canada have developed interpretive guidance that is intended to assist industry in complying with subsections 5(1) of the FDA and 6(1) of the SFCA. These guidelines also assist the CFIA in assessing the compliance of claims with subsections 5(1) of the FDA and 6(1) of the SFCA.
More information on specific claims and statements can be accessed from the Claims and Statements index of the Industry Labelling Tool.
Where there are no specific regulatory requirements or interpretive guidance associated with a given claim, industry remains responsible for compliance with the general prohibitions against false or misleading labelling and advertising.
The general principles in the following section provide broad guidance on the types of factors the CFIA takes into consideration when assessing information and representations in food labelling and advertising, in addition to any specific requirements or guidance that may apply.
In addition to legislative requirements and specific guidelines, the general principles identified below provide an overview of some of the factors the CFIA takes into consideration when assessing any representations in food labelling and advertising for compliance with subsections 5(1) of the FDA and 6(1) of the SFCA.
Accuracy and substantiation
As outlined in Requirements, all information provided on food labels or in advertising must be accurate, truthful, and must not mislead or deceive the consumer. During compliance and enforcement activities carried out by the CFIA, regulated parties may be requested to substantiate labelling or advertising information. There are many forms of substantiation that may be appropriate, depending on the nature of the information. Some types of substantiation include analytical results regarding nutrient profiles or gluten levels, product formulations that relate to the accuracy of ingredient lists, or evidence to support the validity of a claim.
Qualifying statements or disclaimers
Qualifying statements or disclaimers may not be used to correct a false or misleading statement or image. Some labels and advertisements use asterisks in order to direct the consumer's attention to a statement in an obscure location. However, it is not acceptable to use this technique to explain that a featured statement or image is not exactly what it appears to be. It is acceptable to use asterisks to direct the consumer's attention to additional information that is not essential to the accuracy or truthfulness of the statement carrying the asterisk.
Failure to disclose
It is unacceptable to use partial truths, as these are likely to create a false impression. This includes the failure to disclose the essential facts about the properties or composition of a food, particularly when emphasis is given to the more desirable characteristics or to expensive ingredients. For example, it is technically possible to simulate meats, nuts, chocolate, etc., that have the physical appearance and texture of the food simulated. However, labelling and advertising must not create an erroneous impression that more of the real ingredients are present than is the case. To avoid an erroneous impression, it is recommended that claims for these products disclose the presence of the simulated nuts, meat or chocolate, especially when the nuts, meat or chocolate content of the food is emphasized.
To avoid creating false, deceptive or misleading impressions about a food or its consumption, it is recommended that the meaning of descriptive words used in relation to a food be clear. For example, words such as "balanced" or "prescribed" may create an erroneous impression if not further clarified (e.g., "balanced" could be clarified by stating "fresh fruits are part of a balanced diet").
Additionally, it is recommended that care be taken when using comparisons, in order to provide sufficient information to enable consumers to make an informed choice. For example, superlatives, such as "best", and comparatives such as "better" and "superior" may likely create an erroneous impression if not clarified with further information. For more information, see Comparative claims.
Alarmist claims and advertising
Claims that create alarm are generally considered misleading. Examples of alarmist claims include:
- claims that suggest any one food is essential to health or nutritional well-being
- claims that suggest some foods are good while others are bad, or associate guilt with certain foods
- claims that suggest a competitor's product contains harmful or undesirable ingredients
References to the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) and Food and Drug Regulations (FDR)
It is prohibited to make direct or indirect references to the FDA and FDR on food labels or in advertising, unless specifically required by the FDA or FDR [B.01.013, FDR].
An exception exists in cases where a food complies with a standard established by the FDR and the manufacturer of the food has substantiated, by means of the results of tests carried out before the statement is made or by other evidence that exists before the statement is made, that the food so complies. In this case, a statement that "the food complies with the standard for (naming the common name of the food in respect of which the claim is made) in the Food and Drug Regulations" may be made on the label of, or in an advertisement for the food.
Statutory references and terms
Certain terms such as "ingredient", "durable life", "packaging date" and "age of an alcoholic beverage" are defined in the Food and Drug Regulations. Other terms such as "dress", "consumer prepackaged", "organic product" are defined in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. In cases where a specific legal definition of a term exists in legislation, and the term is used on food labels or advertising, the term must comply with the legal definition. For example, if a label of a meat claims "contains no filler", none of the ingredients defined in the term "filler" in Volume 7 of the Canadian Standards of Identity or B.14.001 of the FDR may be present in the product.
Please note that words or expressions that are used in documents incorporated by reference (IbR) into the SFCR (e.g., Canadian Standards of Identity, Canadian Grade Compendium, Common Names for Prepackaged Fish) have the same meaning as defined in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations unless they are defined within those documents [4, SFCR].
It is recommended to also consider consumer perception of the meanings of the terms used on food labels and advertising.
It is acceptable to target food claims for specific population groups, such as a certain sex, age, ethnicity, religion, or to people consuming specific diets provided that the claims comply with all relevant labelling and advertising requirements.
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