Nutritional labelling is an area where government and industry tend to have lively debate but are not always singing from the same hymn-sheet. Ben Cooper reports on a new Canadian consumer education campaign, aimed at improving consumer understanding of the nutrition facts panel on packaged food, where industry and government appear to be in constructive harmony.

Reading the backs of cereal boxes may be one of the more curious habits of modern-day living but we’ve all done it. In comparison with a good book or the newspaper, it is hard to understand why a recipe for flapjacks, a competition we have no intention of entering or a picture of the plastic purple dinosaur that lurks somewhere within the box is quite so captivating. 

However, Canadian breakfasters can now find reading matter of genuine use and benefit on the reverse of their cereal packets, which are being used as part of a major public education initiative led by Health Canada and supported by the Canadian food industry.

Last week, Health Canada and Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) jointly announced the launch of the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign, a multi-media programmed focusing on increasing Canadians’ understanding of the nutrition facts panel and in particular % Daily Value (%DV).

Communication through on-pack, print media and online has already begun, with consumers being directed to Health Canada’s educational website at In January 2011, the campaign will be extended to TV and social media.

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To a degree the use of the back of cereal boxes – one company is devoting the reverse of some 5m boxes to the initiative – embodies the collaboration of public health and industry, as placing messaging on packs is an important element in this multi-faceted campaign. Indeed, FCPC states that impressions related to the campaign will be appearing on some 100m packs.

“By industry stepping up to the plate we were able to keep the costs down for the government,” says Derek Nighbor, FCPC’s senior vice president for public and regulatory affairs. “Because of our reach and the fact that a number of our participating members are carrying this message on-pack and on their websites and through different communication vehicles, and because we are able to use the buying power in the media of our member companies to buy ad time, it was a much more robust campaign than one that the government of Canada could have done on its own. We were able to make this initiative much more powerful, make it have staying power.”

The 34 participating companies raised C$1m for the campaign, Nighbor explains, but “leveraged that into a C$4m buy”.

But this is not all about budgets and media-buying muscle. While Health Canada retained “final sign-off” on all materials, Nighbor points out that the companies also contributed marketing and communication prowess. “We were able to bring to bear a number of our marketing vps and professionals to engage in supporting Health Canada to make sure that the end product was actually going to be effective.” 

Another critical facet to the campaign has been the engagement of third-party organisations and NGOs. “Major health organisations such as Dieticians of Canada, Heart & Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Obesity Network and Canadian Diabetes Association are supporting the Nutrition Facts Education Campaign by including information about the nutrition facts table in their programmes to the public, such as on their websites,” Health Canada spokesperson Ashley Lemire tells just-food.

“Having their support was really critical not only to help the reach but the overall credibility of the initiative,” Nighbor adds.

Nighbor believes this can be a model for industry/government collaboration on public health issues in other countries. He also believes it has set a pattern for future collaboration in Canada.

As one might expect from a government agency, Health Canada is a little more guarded. “This collaboration is the first of its kind for Health Canada,” says Lemire. “The Nutrition Facts Education Campaign is a one-year initiative with an option of an additional one to two years. At this time, the focus is on educating consumers about % Daily Value.  A comprehensive evaluation of the initiative will help assess future activities and/or additional collaborations.”

As to where possible future collaboration might focus, the sometimes thorny issue of front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling may well come into discussions. 

Nighbor was at pains to point out that the focus of this campaign on the back nutritional panel was one of its strengths. 

Health Canada research has shown that 93% of Canadians are familiar with the nutrition facts table, and 73% always or almost always refer to the table when purchasing a product for the first time. However, only a third of consumer purchase decisions are influenced by the nutrition facts table, Health Canada states.

“Despite broad awareness of the Nutrition Facts Table among Canadians, they don’t always use it as well as it could be used for choosing and comparing food products to make healthy food choices,” says Lemire. “The goal of this initiative is to educate and improve consumers understanding of the various components of the Nutrition Facts table, with a particular focus on how to use the % Daily Value.”

The critical question is how far can consumer understanding and use of the back panel be increased, and even if the campaign is successful would front-of-pack labelling remain an option to make further progress on nutrition education.

Many campaigners and public health experts are certainly looking to front-of-pack labelling as an important means to improve nutrition education, though Nighbor suggests debate on this subject is not as heated in Canada as it has been in the US or the UK. “As far as industry regulation and front-of-pack labelling go this question has been talked about in Canada over the last number of years and there has always been a good dialogue between industry, government and the NGO community on these issues.”

But Health Canada adds that it has identified the need to conduct a “thorough analysis” of the use of FOP logos and symbols. 

“Health Canada is currently undertaking reviews of national and international programmes and policies using criteria based on the overall nutritional value of foods, including front-of-package labelling programmes,” Lemire says. “Further action on front-of-package labelling will be decided following analysis of the outcome of these reviews and consideration of initiatives currently being conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the US, National Academies and the World Health Organization that are intended to inform regulatory agencies.”

Nighbor believes government intervention on front-of-pack labelling would not be necessary if attempts to raise consumer understanding of the back panel were completely successful. However, notwithstanding his contention that the debate over FOP labelling is not as fierce in Canada as it is elsewhere, the research Health Canada is undertaking suggests the issue will be discussed further in the future, though arguably this latest collaboration has set an extremely positive and constructive environment for those discussions to take place. 

In the meantime, if the campaign is as successful as Nighbor’s enthusiasm appears to suggest, it won’t just be the backs of cereal packs that Canadian consumers will be reading with intense interest.