Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Signs of the "Silly Season" : When Fake Cheese is A Good Thing

The Consumers' Association of Canada, taking advantage of the August "silly season," has gotten itself into a snit:

If the Federal Government continues on its present course to introduce Bill C-27 regarding the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the plaintive cry will be heard across Canada" "Mom what’s for lunch?" The answer from harried parents will be "I don’t know. Kraft Dinner is no longer available, processed cheese slices to make grilled cheese sandwiches are illegal and cheese spreads are banned. I can’t even make toast with margarine."

“Why has the Federal Government, without any consultation with consumers, pushed legislation to remove from the marketplace many food items cherished by consumers, foods favoured by those seeking healthier solutions for their dietary needs?" says Mel Fruitman, vice-president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada.

Why has the all-party Committee on Agriculture sneakily tacked on an amendment to ban hundreds of popular products, to legislation intended to streamline the operation of the CFIA? All but a few margarines would be banished from grocers shelves. Becel, one of the largest selling brands would no longer be available. Even new products such as spreadable butter would be forbidden as would many frozen treats.

"There is no benefit here for Canadian consumers," says Fruitman. "Labelling of ingredients and nutritional information provide consumers with the information needed to make informed choices. For example, this information assists: those who are lactose intolerant to enjoy lactose-free cheese-like products; diabetics to enjoy sugar-free ice creams and the weight and cholesterol conscious to enjoy a wide range of fat-reduced items."

This is obviously the kind of news release that's trying to get some business for Mr. Fruitman and his association, from journalists who'd like something to write about during a slow news month (hey, when Cathy Sheehan gets press coverage, it's a slow month).

Before reporters start to give him a call, they should bear in mind that Mr. Fruitman isn't exactly speaking from the point of view of a shopper. According to the website of the Government Online Advisory Panel (of which he's a member), Mr. Fruitman operates the Fruitman Consulting Group "which conducts marketing studies for retailers, their suppliers and others (such as trade associations) interested in the consumer goods environment," and has also worked with the Retail Council of Canada.

But is there any substance to his claim? Here's the relevant passage from Bill C-27 that he's complaining about:

65.1 The Act is amended by adding the following after section 18:

Dairy ingredients

18.1 (1) No person shall market an agricultural product using a dairy term on the label unless that product contains the dairy ingredient represented by the dairy term.

Substitute product

(2) No person shall market an agricultural product that has a dairy term on the label if the agricultural product is intended to substitute for a dairy product.


(3) Subsection (1) does not apply
(a) where the label of an agricultural product contains the term “artificial”, “simulated” or “imitation” together with the name of a dairy ingredient and the word “flavour”, and where that product has the artificial flavour of that dairy ingredient added to it;

(b) where the label of an agricultural product contains the term “flavour” or “flavoured” together with the name of a dairy ingredient, and where that flavour is derived from that dairy ingredient;

(c) where the nature of the agricultural product is clear from traditional usage or from the name by which the agricultural product is generally known;

(d) where the name of a dairy ingredient is used to describe a sensory characteristic, other than taste, of the agricultural product; or

(e) where, in the case of, an agricultural product that is derived from the normal lacteal secretion obtained from the mammary glands of any animal other than a cow, genus Bos, the product is labelled so as to identify that animal.


(4) For the purposes of this section,

(a) “dairy ingredient” means butter, buttermilk, butter oil, cream, cheese, ice cream, milk, sour cream, whey, yogurt or any other thing prescribed;

(b) “dairy term” means a word, name, designation, symbol or pictorial which refers to a dairy ingredient; and

(c) “milk” means the normal lacteal secretion obtained from the mammary gland of an animal.

Now, bear in mind that all the products that Mr. Fruitman has cited are what we might think of as containing a dairy product, but don't. So from a marketing standpoint, this passage (if it comes into force) will make his life -- and the lives of the manufacturers, grocers and other retailers who pay for his services -- very, very difficult.

After all, you can't exactly market KD as "macaroni and artificial cheese sauce." Or a low fat cheese product as "containing little or no milk."

I do find it somewhat ironic that the spokesperson for a supposed advocacy group on behalf of shoppers is arguing a case against truth in advertising. But then, I suppose that's why they call it "silly season."