MONTREAL — Marketing healthy fruits and vegetables to Canadian consumers would be easier if the federal government adopted a standard nutrient list and relaxed rules on health claims, according to session panelists at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s annual conference.

“Our challenge is getting the health message about fruit and vegetables out there, but there are so many rules restricting what we can and can’t say, it’s hard,” said moderator Larry McIntosh, president and CEO of Peak of the Market, a vegetable distributor in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the April 14 session.

McIntosh said his company was forced to cancel a radio spot last summer touting the health benefits of a medium potato with its high vitamin C content, iron and more potassium than a banana. The reason: you can’t attach a nutrition label, required by law, to a radio ad.

Mike Furi, produce manager for The Grocery People in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, said the lack of a central source of approved nutritional data in Canada and the prohibitive cost to companies of conducting their own nutrition analysis makes it impossible to make and/or defend any kind of health claim on fresh produce.

At the urging of CPMA, Furi said Ottawa may soon adopt the existing U.S. nutritional facts table for the top 20 fruits and top 20 vegetables.

“We think the Canadian government is going to accept this information in the next six months to a year so we can start to promote the health benefits of fruits and vegetables,” said Furi, who is on several CPMA committees.

In the meantime, he urged CPMA members to get behind programs already in place, such as the CPMA’s Mix It Up, and provincial initiatives such as Quebec’s “I love 5 to 10 a day.”

Incoming CPMA president Ron Lemaire reminded U.S. participants that along with bilingual packaging, food products entering Canada must include a nutrient facts table that meets Canadian regulations.

Carl Svangtun, executive vice president of Sun Rich Fresh Foods Inc., a fresh-cut processor in Richmond British Columbia, said fresh fruits and vegetables won’t sell just because they’re healthy; they also need to look and taste great. He advised giving consumers plenty of information and recipes that incorporate fresh produce with other foods.

He also said the industry should support community groups and events as a way to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Isn’t it ironic,” he said, “that 99.9% of people agree that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but it’s so hard to tell people about it.”

Heart Check

Another option, once nutritional data is established, is to join the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation’s non-profit Heart Check program, developed in 1999 after consultation with Ottawa. The program’s red check mark, paid for by food companies, now appears on more than 2,000 Canadian food products that meet its nutritional guidelines. It’s also appearing on more restaurant menus.

Toronto consulting dietician Carol Dombrow said 85% of Canadians say they are aware of Health Check and feel good buying products that sport the symbol.

“We’re trying to make it simple to make healthy food choices,” Dombrow said, adding that some retailers are beginning to look for the Health Check symbol when listing new products.

Rules restrict Canadian industry’s health messages

Cynthia David

CPMA panelists Carl Svangtun (from left), executive vice president of Sun Rich Fresh Foods Inc.; Carol Dombrow, registered dietician and nutritional consultant for Health Check; Mike Furi, produce manager for The Grocery People, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and moderator Larry McIntosh, president and CEO of Peak of the Market, Winnipeg, Manitoba, discussed regulations that limit the ability of the industry to tout the nutritional attributes of produce.