Written by: Heather Clemenceau
It can be a daunting challenge for consumers to separate true advertising claims from false ones. This is especially true with industries that slaughter animals – in the interest of public image, they are anxious to avoid any terminology that suggests that animals in the food chain die horrible deaths. The term “processing” is now to be used instead of “slaughter,” because of the latter term’s association with mass murder. And while the CFIA heavy-handedly enforces decades old product descriptions that don’t take into consideration the proliferation of newly available plant-based foods, no one is minding the store at the Viandes Richelieu website, where the company makes claims, without evidence, that horsemeat is “good for pregnant women and anemics” and is advisable for individuals with “an increased risk of infections.” It looks like VR’s marketing department could use a good proofreader, or as they say in French, un bon relecteur. So what’s going on here? Is this a faux pas, or a jeu de mots gone wrong?
These types of random statements are pretty risky claims for a slaughterhouse to make. Health Canada has some pretty onerous “Guiding Principles” for product labels and advertising about food characteristics and related health benefits – obviously, because these types of claims influence people’s buying habits. And Health Canada’s standards of evidence are generally consistent with those of other scientific and regulatory authorities, including the European Food Safety Authority.
Consider that “a health claim is a statement or representation that states, suggests or implies that a relation exists between a food or component of that food and health” in Health Canada’s guidance documents on nutrition. These types of claims (about infection and health in pregnancy) fall under “Disease risk reduction claims” and “function claims.” When someone advertises a claim about their product’s ability to treat a health condition, mitigate a disease, or about restoring, correcting or modifying body functions – they must be prepared to back it up. Ideally, the company is supposed to submit these claims to Health Canada so they can be reviewed BEFORE publishing them anywhere. Neither can a company typically make non-specific or general claims (for example, “horsemeat is beneficial to health” or “horsemeat supports immune health”) since these are subject to multiple interpretations and are potentially misleading.
Making health claims are totally optional for a food product. But if and when a claim is made, it must be truthful and not misleading, according to Subsection 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act. This means that producers must have scientific evidence to substantiate a food health claim prior to its use. Subsection 3(1) of the FDA goes on to state that no person shall advertise any food, drug, cosmetic or device to the general public as a treatment, preventative or cure for any of the diseases, disorders or abnormal physical states referred to in Schedule A.
There are some great precedents whereby manufacturers have been slapped down for making dubious or unsupported claims in the past. One of the most famous examples occurred when, in 2011, the Kellogg Co. paid $5 million back to consumers for making the common claim that its Rice and Cocoa Krispies can help a child’s immune system, shortly after a similar settlement concerning its Frosted Mini-Wheats.
The marketing folks at Viandes Richelieu must be under terrible pressure – they blame activists for the unpopularity of their product in an article published in the French language Journal de Montréal.
“There is no restaurant that wants to use it because of the threats. We, too, have it continuously. Our equipment must be monitored 24 hours a day,” declared spokesperson Marc Bouvry in a translated statement about the Bouvry operations in Alberta (VR is also part of the Bouvry horse slaughter empire). Hey Marc, maybe this industry isn’t worth it – at least, that’s the consensus of about 69% of Canadians. Time to find more socially acceptable work. So that’s why I’ll be writing to Health Canada, to ask them to make a determination about the appropriateness of these claims made by Viandes Richelieu. Not too long after sending a letter to Advertising Standards Canada about statements made on Richelieu’s website in 2011, I received a response from ASC indicating that the company had revamped their website to remove the misleading claims.