Food marketing bill would limit most grocery products

University of Calgary research highlights breadth of Health Canada restrictions as Bill S-228 awaits final approval.

New research out of the University of Calgary finds that the majority of supermarket foods marketed to children would not be allowed to keep doing so under new food marketing regulations proposed by Health Canada, as the law which would bring them into effect continues to await final approval in the Senate.

The research looked at 374 child-marketed products from grocery stores under four different regulatory models, including those proposed by Health Canada as part of the federal government’s efforts to curtail child obesity rates in the country. It was conducted by Charlene Elliott, a University of Calgary professor and Canada research chair in food marketing, policy and children’s health.

The study found that nearly 60% of the products purchased would not be allowed to be advertised to children across all four of the regulatory models.

Elliott purchased a variety of foods from two food retailers in Calgary (across the dry, refrigerated and frozen categories) whose packaging was tailored to children, contained the word “kid” or “child” in the brand or product name, or included licensed characters from children’s movies or television shows. The selection of products deliberately excluded candy bars, chips, sodas and other foods considered “obviously unhealthy.”

Eliott then tested the products against two set of regulations proposed by Health Canada, as well as two other models suggested by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European regional office and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).

Under one of the two options proposed by Health Canada, which would allow the marketing of products that are “low in” sugars, sodium and saturated fat (or roughly 5% cent of the daily value), only 2.7 % of the 374 products examined in the study would be permitted. Meanwhile, under more lax rules also proposed by Health Canada, which would allow for products containing less than 15% of the daily value to be marketed to children, close to 30% of the items would be allowed.

The study found that the PAHO’s guidelines would allow for 7% of products and that WHO’s would permit only 11.8% of products. Only six products were found to be permissible under all four of the models.

The report lands as Bill S-228, also known as the Child Protection Act, continues to await final approval in the Senate. The legislation was passed in the House Commons in September last year, but still needs the Senate’s approval before it can receive royal assent.

Amendments to the bill have been debated by senators on several occasions since, most recently on March 18. While the proposed law dates back to 2016 and is part of a larger federal government push to prevent the “marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, similar to those now in place in Quebec,” delays in passing the bill have raised the concerns of advocates who believe industry lobbying may be to blame.

In a January email to strategy, Patrick Fafard, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Canadian public policy, refused to speculate on the likelihood that Bill S-228 will pass before the federal election in October, because the reasons for the delay remain unclear. But Fafard confirmed that the bill will die should it not pass before the election. “An election wipes the slate clean and the process starts again.”

However, he said Health Canada’s industry consultation process, which began in 2017, could remain relevant if similar legislation is re-introduced following the election. Health Canada’s guidelines remain “somewhat independent” of the bill, and if the new proposed law is “broadly similar” to the current proposal, the work remains “very useful,” he said.