What we heard report: Consultation on the development of voluntary guidance for providing food information for foods sold to consumers through e-commerce
As Canada's online food retailing industry grows, consumers and industry have expressed a need for more information and guidance about products sold online. In response to this, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) consulted on the development of voluntary guidance for providing food information for foods sold to consumers through e-commerce from May 9 until July 8, 2022.
The intent of the consultation was to inform the development of voluntary guidance to help food retailers and other businesses provide food information to consumers so that consumers can make an informed purchasing decision. A wide variety of stakeholders and Canadian consumers were consulted to seek input on the:
- proposed principles and approach for developing this guidance; and
- challenges faced in obtaining, providing and/or maintaining information about foods for sale through e-commerce
This report summarizes the feedback that was received during this consultation. The participants' views expressed below do not reflect those of Health Canada, the CFIA or the Government of Canada.
Who we heard from
During the comment period, 727 online surveys and 23 letters were received.
The survey respondents self–identified as being part of the following broad stakeholder group:
- as a representative of a group or organization: 56
- as an individual: 684
- prefer not to say: 10
Within those broad stakeholder groups, the views of the following stakeholders were representedFootnote 1:
- Consumer, general public: 664 (70.8%)
- Association representing consumers: 4 (0.4%)
- Grocery retailer: 6 (0.6%)
- Grocery delivery service: 2 (0.2%)
- General merchandise retailer that sells food: 2 (0.2%)
- Online retailer that permits third-party sales on their e-commerce platform: 4 (0.4%)
- Restaurant or foodservice operator: 3 (0.3%)
- Meal kit company: 2 (0.2%)
- Food manufacturer, processor: 23 (2.5%)
- Food primary producer or farmer: 14 (1.5%)
- Importer: 5 (0.5%)
- Software or web developer: 3 (0.3%)
- Industry association: 11 (1.2%)
- Health professional: 75 (8.0%)
- Health association: 7 (0.7%)
- Academia, research: 11 (1.2%)
- Consultant: 14 (1.5%)
- Government (municipal, provincial, territorial or federal): 26 (2.8%)
- Other (please specify): 22 (2.4%)
- Prefer not to say: 4 (0.4%)
What we heard
Overall, respondents welcomed the opportunity to provide feedback and expressed their support of Health Canada and CFIA efforts to establish guidance for providing food information for foods sold to consumers through e-commerce.
What follows is a summary of stakeholder views on specific sections of the consultation.
Of the consumers who responded (664) to the consultation, they reported shopping for food online:
- 112 (17%) More than once a week
- 153 (23%) Once a week
- 152 (23%) 2-3 times per month
- 92 (14%) Once a month
- 106 (16%) Less than once a month
- 44 (7%) Never
How would you describe your experience in accessing food information (for example, list of ingredients and allergens, nutrition facts table) when shopping for foods online?
Consumers generally found it challenging and frustrating to find all the information they needed to inform their purchasing decision and the most cited information consumers wanted was allergen content (including precautionary statements), ingredients and nutrition facts. Country of origin was also mentioned but to a lesser extent.
When shopping online, some of the most reported challenges in accessing information included:
- Unreadable/low-resolution label images
- Inaccurate and out-dated information
- A lack of ingredient and allergen information from all online food retailers
What could improve your access to food information?
- Legible and zoom-able images of the food package
- Specifically images of the front of the package, list of ingredients (including any mandatory and precautionary allergen statements) and the Nutrition Facts table
- Prominent allergen statements or website navigation features to easily identify products that contain (or not) certain allergens
- Images of all sides of the product package so that they could find information and interact with a product the same way as they would with a physical product
- Standard webpage layout across a retailer's website to make it easier to find information and compare products
- Information displayed in the same format as on a package. For example, the Nutrition Facts table and list of ingredients
- Availability of all information required on food packages also available on product information pages
- A mandatory approach (as opposed to voluntary guidance) to the provision of food information on product information pages
- Accountability and monitoring to ensure the information provided is accurate
Comments on the proposed approach for developing guidance
4.1 Provide the same food information that is required to appear on any given label of food offered for sale in a physical store. For example, most prepackaged foods (that is, those that are packaged at the time they are offered for sale on the premises of a physical store) are required to be labelled with certain specific food information. The food information should be provided before the e-commerce purchase is concluded.
Consumers were supportive that all information required on food packages also appear on a product information page, with particular emphasis on allergen, ingredient and nutrition information. Further, the guidance should encourage retailers to disclose nutritional facts and other information that may not be mandatory for inclusion on the physical label when the product is sold at a physical retail space. It was also stated that food information should be provided at the point of product selection and not just any point prior to the purchase being concluded, as it is currently stated in the principle.
In general, industry stakeholders were supportive of this principle with a few exceptions that were reiterated a number of times.
It was recommended that labelling exemptions that exist in the Food and Drug Regulations and the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations should be consistent between those on physical packaging and on product information pages to avoid unnecessary burden to businesses for obtaining information not currently required. Some examples were labelling exemptions for: fresh fruit and vegetables and foods with a small available display surface; and exemptions for labelling information like storage instructions when storage conditions differ from normal room temperature and date marking for products with a durable life greater than 90 days.
Industry raised the issue that there are challenges maintaining accurate inventory-specific information, that is information which can vary for different units of the same product (for example: lot numbers and best before dates); as opposed to universal information, which is information that remains constant for every unit of a product (for example: product name, net quantity, or ingredients).
While consumers were supportive of having a guarantee that they would receive a product with a minimum period of durability, industry stressed the challenge of providing a period of minimum durability using an exact date (like a best before date), due to fluctuation in inventory and timing of product selection. An alternative like "number of days remaining" was proposed as a practical solution.
Industry also stated that maintaining the Country of Origin for some foods like fresh fruits and vegetables can be challenging due to perishability, seasonality and variability and flexibility should be considered to allow multiple Country of Origin declarations (e.g. Frozen Cherries: Country of Origin: Canada, Greece or Chile).
4.2 Provide allergen information (including precautionary statements) for any foods offered for sale through e-commerce, including those packaged or prepared by the seller (for example, take-out food sold by a restaurant, foods sold in bulk and food sold from a deli case). The information should be provided before the purchase is concluded and it should accompany that food upon delivery to the consumer.
Consumers were very supportive of having access to allergen information (including precautionary allergen information) for all food sold online. In addition to allergen information, consumers felt that ingredient lists for all foods sold online are equally as important because there are allergies, sensitivities and intolerances outside of the common allergens. Consumers also stressed that allergen statements should be prominent and preferred allergens listed in a "Contains" or "May contain" statement because it is easier to find when compared to being within the list of ingredients.
Industry indicated that precautionary labelling could be challenging, particularly for those packaged or prepared by the seller (for example, take-out food sold by a restaurant, foods sold in bulk and food sold from a deli case, because products can be prepared at different sites where there are risks that the product could be exposed to different allergens. Industry also proposed having the flexibility of listing the allergens within a list of ingredients or in a "Contains…" or "May contain…" statement.
4.3 Provide product images of a food to help consumers recognize the product. For example, use the images of the front of the package or the food itself (in the case of fresh foods).
Consumers were supportive of this principle, but many proposed images of all package sides that would allow them to interact with the images as they would with the physical package in a store. Additionally, the user should be able to enlarge the images, which should be readily legible. It was also proposed that any products that must display a front-of-package symbolFootnote 2 or a supplemented food caution identifierFootnote 3 must be visible without toggling and must be the main product image.
Industry commented that there would be challenges in presenting images that reflect the product that will be received due to inventory rotation (older versions of the product being phased out), seasonal packaging (for example, Olympics themed packages), and seasonality in the case of fresh foods sold in bulk (for example, fruit and vegetables), and suggested a "representative" image be acceptable. Industry also commented that some flexibility may be required to allow for images that are optimized for mobile devices.
4.4 Food information and product images should be provided on the product information page, before the purchase is concluded. If this is not possible, provide the information using another appropriate means, so long as the consumer is provided with clear direction on where to find the information and the consumer does not incur any additional charge to obtain it.
From the consumer perspective, directing the shopper to seek food information from other sources creates additional effort and could result in a delay if the consumer must call a company that is only open during normal business hours. Additionally this could lead to ineffective changes on the retail product information page as they can direct the consumer to alternate sources of food information.
Industry was supportive but noted that directing the consumer to a different website may not guarantee that the consumer can access information in English and French so in this scenario there should be flexibility for language requirements.
4.5 Indicate if and how the delivered food may differ from the one being offered for sale, and advise the consumer to verify the label of the delivered food for those differences.
Consumers generally agreed but stated that retailers should not use such a statement as a disclaimer when the information provided on the product information page is not accurate. Additionally, there should be flexibility in being able to opt-in or out of product substitutes when a product is not available.
Industry was supportive of this principle and suggested that a consistent statement be developed to address the potential differences.
4.6 Provide food information in both official languages (English and French), so that consumers can access and understand the information in their preferred language. E-commerce platforms should support accented characters that are required for proper spelling and reader comprehension (for example, é, à and ç).
Industry requested that the guidance offer retailers the flexibility to determine whether bilingual labelling information in both official languages is best suited for a given customer base, according to regional, or local circumstances or situations.
4.7 Provide food information in a manner that reflects, as much as possible, the manner in which it is presented on the food's physical label.
Consumers were supportive of having information presented in a standardized and familiar manner.
Industry requested that there should be an allowance for flexibility on displaying information. For example, in the event where the guidance recommends replicating the Nutrition Facts table according to Food and Drug Regulations requirements (leading, spacing etc.). Additionally, for some retailers, presently, it may not be possible to accommodate this requirement in their existing e-commerce platforms, due to the current structure and layout of the platform.
4.8 Provide food information in a consistent layout across all product information pages of an e-commerce platform, so that foods can easily be compared.
Consumers were supportive of information being presented in a standardized way, allowing for easy comparison between products.
Industry generally agreed that across a single retailer, the information should be presented in a standardized way. Some concerns were expressed, including how to accommodate the way by which product information is received from a supplier, if there was a suggested format or layout on the product information page, and whether simply providing an image of the package information would be an acceptable means of making food information available to the consumer.
4.9 Provide food information on a product information page in a manner that is clear, prominent and legible. For example:
- black text on a white background
- appropriate spacing between lines of text
- appropriate use of white space
- support text and image resizing without compromising legibility
There was general agreement with this principle but industry suggested that there should be flexibility in how information is presented, as long as it is easy to read and accessible to consumers similar to that which is available on store retail shelves.
4.10 Provide food information in a way that is readable by screen readers, whether in text format or as an image.
There were very few comments addressing this principle, but it was noted that this could be burdensome, particularly for small businesses.
4.11 Design the structure of an e-commerce platform (regardless of device or screen size) in a manner that helps the user easily navigate and find food information.
There were few consumer comments on this principle, but there were specific requests for navigation features that would enable the user to easily find foods that contained (or not) certain ingredients and allergens.
Industry requested flexibility in how information is presented to optimize viewing on different devices. It was also noted that ensuring content is designed for all typical consumer devices including desktop, mobile, tablet and app, in English and French, and for all common operating systems and browsers can amount to significant upfront costs and continual upgrades as the technology evolves. Additionally, there could be space limitations on e-commerce platforms that could be device specific, or may also be related to the retail application where other information competes for the same display space.
Comments on challenges regarding displaying and maintaining current information on product information pages
If you are a business that sells or is considering selling foods to Canadian consumers through e-commerce, please describe any challenges regarding displaying and maintaining current information on product information pages.
Industry respondents provided feedback relative to challenges that can be grouped into the following categories:
Data collection and management
Collection and consolidation of information can be complicated as retailers might rely on different methods to obtain the information, e.g. the vendor manually inputting content into the system, using one or more content management systems, or the retailer inputting the content into the system on behalf of the vendor. This can result in human data-entry error, incorrect interpretation of content standards and errors in content management systems.
The way by which data is managed in e-commerce follows a standardized display format (that is, table consisting of a set number of rows and columns) across a category of products. Because of this, displaying data that follows different structures correctly, requires diverse and tailored display logics on the website/app, adding complexities to content management. An example of similar data with different data structures would be:
- a large chocolate bar will have one Nutrition Facts table
- a small chocolate bar will have a Nutrition Facts table exemption or an abbreviated format
- a box of assorted chocolate bars may have multiple Nutrition Facts tables to account for each variation
Due to the nature of e-commerce, it is challenging to guarantee that the product advertised on the website always matches what the consumer receives. This can be because:
- orders are fulfilled separately from the point of purchase. For example:
- the advertised product may not be in stock at the retail location fulfilling the order
- the inventory stock may change between when the order is placed and when it is fulfilled
- as a product undergoes changes, the new and old product will be available during that transition period. Product changes may result from:
- product reformulations
- seasonality and availability of ingredients
- new regulatory requirements
- promotional/seasonal products
- temporary labels used during supply chain shortages with more limited information
Other considerations (in no particular order)
Scope of the guidance
Several stakeholders requested clarification about the intended scope of the guidance, and if it applied to all vendors who sold food products online. For example, online marketplaces that allow multiple merchants to sell on a marketplace website, health and wellness companies, vendors who sell food products on a wholesale basis, or vendors who sell to buyers who will use the products for further processing or food preparation.
It was recommended that consideration should be given to the ability for small businesses to comply with the guidance as they face unique challenges in providing information online. They generally do not have the resources to develop or maintain complex e-commerce systems that include features such as links to data management systems, accessibility tools, and detailed design controls that would be required to implement the guidance.
Retailers located outside Canada and imported products
Clarity was sought about how the guidance should apply to retailers not located in Canada or whose websites are hosted in another country. Concerns were also raised that foreign businesses selling directly to consumers from foreign countries may not be aware of the licensing, safety, and labelling requirements that apply to foods sold in Canada and that there may not be equivalency with requirements that apply to importers and domestic manufacturers who sell food from one province to another. Respondents stated that, should the guidance not apply, it could raise concerns about domestic competitiveness and question whether imported products sold online are meeting Canadian standards for labelling and safety.
Many non-industry stakeholders raised the requirement for unbiased monitoring, evaluation and reporting of industry action to understand the overall uptake of the guidance, the extent of compliance, accuracy, and consumer related outcomes. There was interest from consumers on having a means through which they could report online labelling issues.
Academic stakeholders stressed that online food labelling information can be a valuable source of research data because of the ease of access, and it can be used to understand the state of the Canadian food environment.
A number of non-industry stakeholders stressed that to achieve meaningful change in the availability and accessibility of food information, a regulatory approach would be necessary. A mandatory approach would prevent a piece-meal implementation whereby retailers only adopt some components of the guidance, leaving consumers without important information, and creating an unfair playing field amongst online retailers. There was also question as to who the responsible party or parties are for ensuring that the data is available and accurate on a retailer page, and for responding to questions or complaints from consumers.
Some food safety concerns were expressed regarding food sold online and inadequate government oversight of the e-commerce product supply chain process. For example, ensuring appropriate safe food handling protocols are being followed when a food is produced in a facility that is not under federal or provincial oversight or ensuring foods are kept at an appropriate temperature during shipping and delivery to the consumer to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
Health stakeholders stated that regulations related to food marketing should be applied to product information pages. It was also recommended that Health Canada and the CFIA monitor current and future online food marketing practices. It was also suggested that final guidelines include a reminder that there are laws that apply to false or misleading claims and misrepresentation.
Health Canada and the CFIA will consider all input to inform the development of guidelines for the provision of food information for foods sold online. Comments and suggestions for changes that would require regulatory changes will be retained for consideration as part of future regulatory modernization.
Given the range of feedback provided, both organizations will also share comments on topics that were outside of the specific questions asked with the appropriate Departmental experts for consideration.
CFIA and Health Canada would like to thank everyone who participated in the consultation process.
- Date modified: