Food Legislation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Food Legislation

Legislation designed to prevent the sale of unsafe or unwholesome food represents one of the oldest forms of governmental or societal intervention in the AGRICULTURE AND FOOD system.

Food Legislation

Legislation designed to prevent the sale of unsafe or unwholesome food represents one of the oldest forms of governmental or societal intervention in the AGRICULTURE AND FOOD system. One of the earliest references to food adulteration is found in the English Assize of Bread Act, which dates back to about the year 1200 during the reign of King John. This statute began as an economic measure relating to the quantity of bread that bakers were obliged to offer for sale. During the 13th century it was expanded to include ale, fish, meat and various other food commodities. Over the years the statute evolved to include quality of food because it made little sense to purchase a certain quantity of food only to find that it had been watered down or was so unsafe or unwholesome as to be unusable. In 1860 the English Parliament enacted a landmark broad food law, not designed to control specific items but rather aimed at preventing adulteration of all food and drink. This law was amended in 1872 and again in 1875.

Canadian Developments

In Canada in the latter half of the 19th century, developments were influenced by English initiatives. Although certain food laws were in force before Confederation in 1867, the first federal legislation dealing with adulteration of food was enacted in 1874. It is interesting to note that the US did not pass similar legislation until 1906, although before that time various commodity-oriented statutes were in existence which contained elements relating to adulteration and food safety. The 1874 law received its impetus from the large quantities of grossly adulterated liquor being consumed. Parliament was besieged with requests to do something about the situation. In response, early legislators took the position that liquor per se should not be banned, only adulterated or unsafe liquor. Hence, on 1 January 1875 an Act to Prevent the Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs came into effect.

This statute included a penalty of a $100 fine and a month in jail, with or without hard labour, for any manufacturer of liquor adulterating his product with substances such as salt, copper sulphate, opium, tobacco, Indian hemp or salts of lead and zinc. The second offence carried a $400 fine and 3 months in jail. The 1875 Act has been amended and altered many times over the years, and in 1920 it was superseded by the Food and Drugs Act. The most recent revision came into effect in 1954 and is currently in force.

The Food and Drugs Act

The Food and Drugs Act is considered to be a consumer statute and is intended to protect consumers from health hazards and fraud in the sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices. The Act finds its constitutional authority in that section of the CONSTITUTION ACT of 1982, dealing with criminal law. Its enforcement is one of the responsibilities of the federal minister of national health and welfare. Unlike legislation enforced by the federal ministers of agriculture and fisheries, it is not and never was intended to assist producers, manufacturers or retailers in preparing or marketing foods. Sections 4, 5 and 7 of the Food and Drugs Act are very important because they cover, in a very general way, all major aspects of safety and fraud associated with the sale and consumption of food. Section 4 deals with product safety, integrity and freedom from adulteration. Section 5 deals primarily with aspects of economic fraud and section 7 with production, manufacturing and storage of food under unsanitary conditions.

Section 25 provides authority for the writing and passage of regulations for carrying out the purposes and provisions of the Act. It is through the use of these regulations that specific control is exercised. For example, Division 16 of the regulations lists, in table form, some 380 permitted FOOD ADDITIVES. If a substance does not appear in one of the 15 tables of Division 16, it may not be used as a food additive. Regulations prescribing maximum permissible levels for the occurrence of PESTICIDES and other agricultural chemicals in foods are also tabled on a similar "positive listing" basis. When a substance is found to be toxic and required to be severely restricted or prohibited in the food supply, a "negative listing" principle may be used. This device has been used in section B.01.046 of the regulations to restrict severely or prohibit the presence of some 16 substances with demonstrated toxicity by declaring them to be adulterants. In July 1983 the Department of National Health and Welfare proposed that food irradiation be regulated as a process rather than a food additive, in accordance with international recommendations endorsed by both the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. This proposal has resulted in considerable controversy and is not expected to be finalized until the autumn of 1988.

In addition to the "positive" and "negative" listing techniques, certain specific regulations have been established to prohibit the presence of pathogenic SALMONELLA bacteria in susceptible products, including chocolate, processed eggs and frog legs. Regulations have also been used as a means of providing a legal identity to groups of foods and of ensuring the nutritional adequacy of certain foods considered critical in the diets of certain individuals or groups of individuals.

The Food and Drugs Act and Regulations may be considered as the basic federal statute dealing with food safety and nutrition in Canada, but there are many other pieces of legislation that have an impact on the sale of foods at both the federal and provincial levels. For example, departments of agriculture and fisheries at both federal and provincial levels have legislation used for the control and marketing of specific commodities. These statutes often deal with product identity and quality in relation to grade standards. The Pest Control Products Act and Regulations are of particular interest in that the federal minister of agriculture is responsible for registering pesticides for use in Canada, while the minister of national health and welfare acts as principal health adviser in evaluating the safety of pesticide residues and establishing maximum safe limits for these residues in food.

Federal and provincial departments of the environment have, in recent years, established regulations respecting discharge into the environment of certain toxic substances which could ultimately contaminate the food chain. All provincial jurisdictions also have public-health Acts and regulations which provide the medical officer at the city, regional, county or municipal level with considerable authority in regulating food-manufacturing and food-service establishments. Regulation of food safety must continue to be a dynamic process reflecting both technological and societal change. In this way, Canadian consumers will continue to enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world.

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