In early 2005, the federal government (then under Liberal leadership) formed the ”Trans Fat Task Force,” co-chaired by Health Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. The mandate of the task force was to develop recommendations and strategies to effectively eliminate or reduce processed trans fats in foods to the lowest possible level. In June 2006, the task force issued its final report to the federal Minister of Health. Among its recommendations, the task force proposed the introduction of regulations to limit trans fat content in certain foods sold or used by retail or food service establishments.

Industrially produced trans fats are formed during partial hydrogenation, a process used by the food industry to harden and stabilize liquid vegetable oils and which enables a longer shelf life for food products. The majority of trans fats in our diet are industrially produced and are found predominantly in baked and fried foods, although there are sources of naturally occurring trans fats occurring in much lower levels in such foods as dairy products, beef and lamb.

Regulation of Mandatory Labelling

Canada became the first country in 2005 to regulate the mandatory labelling of trans fats on pre-packaged foods. With the implementation of the task force and its recommendations for regulating trans fat content in foods, Canada seemed set to join the ranks of other trans fat pioneers internationally. Denmark, for example became the first country to set an upper limit on the percentage of industrially produced trans fats in foods only a few years earlier. However, with the federal leadership changing hands soon after the task force issued its recommendations, the trans fat issue seemed to fall off the federal radar, until recently.

Adoption of Recommendations

In early 2007, the new federal health Minister announced his Ministry’s intention to adopt the recommendations of the task force to limit the trans fats in foods. Specifically, the Minister has asked the food industry to voluntarily reduce trans fats to the limits recommended by the task force. If, after two years, significant progress has not taken place, the Minister will implement regulations to require the recommended levels be met.

Elsewhere in Canada, some municipalities have toyed with the idea of enforcing the recommendations of the task force at the local level. Calgary recently became the first city in Canada to control trans fats in foods used or sold at food establishments (or any facility that requires a permit from the Calgary Health Region to operate). The “Trans Fat Reduction Strategy” is an initiative of the Calgary Health Region and will be implemented in two phases. The first phase, which was effective as of January 1, 2008, completely bans the use of hydrogenated oils, margarine or shortening for spreads or for cooking, frying, sautéing, deep-frying or grilling. It also limits the content of trans fat in any product used for frying or as a spread to not more than 2% of the product’s total fat content. In the second phase, to be effective as of July 1, 2009, provides that the trans fat content of any food item stored, served, used or sold must be not more than 5% of the food’s total fat content. These new requirements apply only to industrially produced trans fats (not natural trans fats).

Toronto's medical officer of health issued a statement requesting that restaurants and food service outlets voluntarily limit their use of trans fats. In May 2007, Ottawa city council voted against a motion that would have phased out trans-fats from the city's restaurants. These two cities, as well as Vancouver, have indicated that they will be watching Calgary's experience in banning trans fats to assess whether the plan can work at the local level.

Significance

Accordingly, food franchises in Canada can likely expect the content of trans fats in their food products and used at the store level will be regulated to some extent in the near future, either at the federal or regional level. In the context of a franchise system, the Calgary trans fat requirements will technically apply at the franchisee level; however, to the extent that food items are required to be sold as part of the franchise system, the franchisor will also need to ensure that these requirements can be met by franchisees. For some franchises, this may require a substantial change to menus and product offerings, or to food preparation procedures, which could result in changes to pricing and suppliers. Moreover, a franchisor who has undertaken substantial changes to ensure its franchisees meet the requirements in Calgary may want to consider implementing the same changes across Canada in anticipation of potential federal regulation or similar regional initiatives.