Labeling Debate Brewin' Up North

picture of beer bottle caps
Image via Maggie Hoffman at Serious Eats

Canada is joining the ranks of countries who are amping up their recognition of gluten-intolerance – and for some industries, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

There’s a debate raging in the Great White North over new labeling regulations proposed by the Canadian Celiac Association and Health Canada, the Canadian federal health department. These new regulations are designed to help people with food allergies identify dangerous ingredients more readily and reliably, and are similar the standards we already have in place in the U.S. The plan has been in the works for about a decade, but now that it’s ready to be implemented, one industry is mounting a last-ditch resistance.

The brouhaha comes from the Brewers Association of Canada, the group that represents Canada’s beer manufacturers. Under the proposed plan, all beers would be required to place a prominent label on their bottles warning consumers that the drink contains barley, a move that detractors of the regulations equate to putting a “Warning: contains tomatoes” label on ketchup bottles.

Some small, independent breweries are concerned about cost – and justifiably so. An article about the proposed regulations in the Montreal Gazette brought up two companies in particular, Steam Whistle Brewery and Mill St. Brewery. They distribute their beer in vintage-style bottles with the label printed directly on the glass, and have a return-rinse-reuse arrangement with stores that carry their products. The new labeling regulations would force them to trash all of their existing bottles and manufacture new ones, a move that would cost the tiny breweries an extraordinary amount of money.

The Canadian Celiac Association, on the other hand, released a statement urging the brewers to back down. They point out that beer manufactures have always enjoyed a level of exemption from labeling laws, such as the requirement to provide a complete list of ingredients on their labels. Under the new rules, manufacturers would retain that exemption. Supporters of the proposed regulations also point out that hospital visits as a result of allergic reactions cost Canada millions of dollars each year, and that the benefits of the new rules would far outweigh the costs.

While I’m not sure I know a single gluten-free eater who isn’t aware that beer is a dangerous choice, we can’t assume that every person has equal access to health information, so this is clearly a bit of a gray area. What do you think? Do the labels cover such obvious territory that the rules would do more harm than good, or do the brewers need to back down and agree to follow the same rules as all other Canadian food manufacturers? And do you think the U.S. has adequate food labeling regulations, or should we be reassessing our system the way Canada is?

2 thoughts on “Labeling Debate Brewin' Up North”

  1. While I am not a beer drinker, I do have Celiacs and I had the disease presenting before I knew what it was. Hidden glutens are the problem. I am happy with ‘gluten free’ labels. I don’t always need to know what you put in your product but I need to know it isn’t going to raise hives on my brain. As for the bottle issue – use a sticker until you reorder bottles to reassure your consumer they won’t become seriously ill injesting your product. You don’t want your product to make people sick. Because I am not a beer drinker I didn’t automatically know how it was made. Where the problem also shows up is when beer is used as an ingredient in other foods and becomes hidden. Would I have known to not eat such foods? Now I do but its been a long and often hellish road to become educated enough to stay away from anything with low disclosure when possible.

  2. I think everyone who should know, knows that beer is a no no for those with gluten problems. BUT I do think EVERY product made for consumption (beer, liquor, food, whatever) should be CLEARLY labeled with its ingredients. If EVERYTHING has a clear ingredients label, then no one gets to get surprised with ‘oh, ketchup has tomatoes?’ What people do, or don’t do, with that information is their own business.

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