Pressure from officials at Foreign Affairs was the driving force behind Health Canada's controversial decision last year to allow the addition of caffeine to non-cola soft drinks, newly released internal records indicate.
When Health Canada announced in March 2010 that it was loosening up the caffeine rules for carbonated beverages, the country's food regulator said the decision was made after an "extensive review of all available science," adding that the "safety of Canadians is our top priority."
There was no mention of international trade considerations or a specific brand driving the process.
But internal records released under access to information show Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq approved the wider use of caffeine in soft drinks following a request from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and had nothing to do with citrus drinks like Sprite or 7UP or with any consumer campaign seeking greater choice.
Rather, the documents show the regulatory change, made through a ministerial tool called an Interim Marketing Authorization, was requested by DFAIT on behalf of Irn-Bru, a popular caffeinated drink from Scotland. As part of a request on behalf of Irn-Bru made by brand owner A.G. Barr of Glasgow, the department asked Canada's food regulator for "prioritized treatment of amended regulations related to caffeine additives in beverages thereby permitting the sale of Irn-Bru in Canada."
The beverage, considered to be the original energy drink and known for its bright orange colour, is marketed as Scotland's most popular soft drink because it has outsold Coke and Pepsi in its home market. Until the rule change in Canada last year, the use of synthetic caffeine as an additive had been limited to cola drinks like Coke and Pepsi, so Irn-Bru had to be caffeine-free in Canada.
7UP, Sprite and Mountain Dew also had to be caffeine free, and they remain so today, despite the new rules permitting citrus-tasting sodas to be caffeinated at concentrations of up to 150 parts per million. This benchmark is lower than the permitted level of caffeine in cola beverages, set at 200 parts per million, but the lower level coincides with Irn-Bru's submission.
DFAIT got involved in the file — flagged by the department as a "long-standing trade irritant" between Canada and Britain — after the Scottish company appeared to be making little headway with Health Canada. The company submitted its request to Health Canada to amend Canada's food regulations to permit the use of caffeine in all carbonated soft drinks in August 2003, the records show.
In November 2008, DFAIT stepped in and asked Health Canada to loosen up the caffeine rules for Irn-Bru by granting an Interim Marketing Authorization. The following September, in preparation for an "upcoming meeting with the U.K.," the deputy director of DFAIT's technical barriers and regulations division contacted the director general of Health Canada's food directorate for an update, according to newly released correspondence.
The DFAIT official pressed the senior Health Canada official for another update on the eve of a conference call in February 2010 involving a special Canada/European Union trade and investment committee, at which "this will come up."
Both the British high commissioner to Canada at the time, Anthony Cary, and Peter Van Loan, the international trade minister at the time, also appeared to be engaged in the Irn-Bru file.
Just days after Health Canada's announcement authorizing the broader use of caffeine, DFAIT staff prepared updated "messaging" on the Irn-Bru file for a scheduled meeting between Van Loan and Cary the following week.
Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Canadian branch of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said the internal records paint a troubling picture.
"Shouldn't the minister of health place more value on the health of Canadian children than the marketing ambitions of a foreign liquid candy manufacturer?" asked Jeffery, citing what he called the federal government's conflicting message in expanding the use of an addictive stimulant in carbonated drinks while running a television ad campaign that linked sugary drinks with childhood obesity.
"Making mildly addictive caffeinated drinks more widely available could certainly undo any good done by Health Canada's TV ads urging Canadians to cut back on soft drink consumption," he said.
Justin Sherwood, president of the Canadian Beverage Association, said the expanded use of caffeine for non-cola carbonated drinks was not a priority for his organization, which represents brands like Sprite and 7UP.
"I'm not aware of any new non-cola carbonated soft drink in the market that has added caffeine as a result," he added.