I’ve noticed a trend the last few years and as a French-Canadian, it’s annoying and insulting. Companies selling products to Canadians have begun scaling back on the information provided on products in French. Many of these companies are involved in production of personal care, cleaning and household products. They rely on ploys to deny French information on packages, which goes against Canadian packaging and labelling laws which requires that products be labelled in both French and English throughout Canada.
At first, the products appear to contain both French and English on the packaging but this is deceitful. One of the ploys companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever and Shoppers’ Drug Mart use is to put partial bilingual information and merge the French and English ingredients into one place as if all the chemicals they used were exactly named the same in French and English.
While it’s true that many of the ingredients used in the type of products made by Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever and Shoppers’ Drug Mart are often spelled the same, they are not always. For example, alcohol is written “alcool” in French. Other products, like sodium chloride are actually spelled “chlorure de sodium” in French. Producers also use tricks to appear to provide bilingual ingredient lists such as using the Latin word “aqua” as a stand in for both “water” and “eau” in French. Since “aqua” is often the first ingredient listed, followed by unfamiliar ingredients for most customers, the manufacturers such as Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever and Shoppers’ Drug Mart probably think the majority of customers will just skip over and ignore the fact that French product descriptions are effectively absent from the ingredients' labelling.
Details such as the percentage of a chemical used in a product is also often presented in unilingual English but passed as if it was bilingual. Percentages in English are written as using periods like Oxybenzone 0.7 . In French percentages are indicated with commas as in Oxybenzone 0,7. To be truly bilingual, the percentages must be written in both forms.
These are important details and I’m sure the majority of English-speakers reading this article will find that my request for properly written French on product labels is unreasonable. Let me turn this around, if as an English customers, by law all your products were supposed to be written in your language, would you accept typos and gross replacements on your product packaging in another language? Would you accept that your language is butchered because some designer is too dumb to design a package that can accommodate all legal languages. In fact the English language is equally butchered. The French word "parfum" is often used as a stand in for "perfume" in these combined ingredients lists. Butchering French on product packages' labels effectively means that you don’t want francophones to purchase your products. Dear manufacturers, do you want my francophone money yes or no?
I’ve learned two things from this exercise. First, products considered dangerous and that can poison kids and pets, manufacturers use complete and proper French and English. Ditto for food goods. That means manufacturers are afraid of getting sued and are protecting their asses. But on non food items, products considered mild and non risky, with sometimes much more real estate for proper labelling information, French is skipped or butchered as much as possible. Let me remind products manufacturers such as Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Shoppers’ Drug Mart, that it is illegal to omit complete French and English information on your products, no matter what your lawyers tell you. Partial, Frenglish, badly spelled and fake French or English won’t cut it. You’re currently breaking Canadian laws if you don’t provide clear and complete labelling information in both of Canada's official languages. Thankfully, I could not find similar law-breaking on M.C. Johnson, Church & Dwight and Procter & Gamble products, yet, but I’ll keep on looking.
The second thing I’ve learned is that some of the products I buy as a consumer are downright scary. I’m not a chemist but doing research for this article, I found a lot of products that I should stop buying because of the health risks involved. I’ll stick with vinegar, rubbing alcohol and “aqua” for the majority of my household cleaning products from now on.
There’s probably enough irregularities in the product packaging of Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever and Shoppers’ Drug Mart for francophones to start a class-action suit against these companies for failing to properly provide French information on their product packages. Since the government doesn’t seem to care about enforcing its own laws, maybe that and a national boycott by francophones is what will make these manufacturers and retailers rethink their approach to French on their products’ packaging.
* UpdateNovember 22, 2011, Procter & Gamble also infringes on Canadian product
labelling and packaging laws, although they try harder at showing
ingredients in both languages by using forward slashes for some words
that are spelled differently i.e., "water/eau."
* Update January 5, 2012 - I received this response from Shoppers Drug Mart where they claim to adhere to all rules and regulations, but of course they don't.
Hello Hervé, Thank you for writing us about your concerns regarding the labelling of our products. Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix adheres to all rules and regulations outlined by Health Canada and other government legislations. If there is a particular product you feel does not meet these standards please provide us with the product details (brand, name, UPC, etc...) and we will investigate accordingly and make any appropriate correction as necessary. Having a strong presence in Quebec and other areas with a strong French presence we value our French customers and we truly apologize for any labelling you feel does not meet your expectations. It is certainly not our intent to upset such an integral part of our clientele. Customer feedback is very important to our continued success and your comments and concerns have been forwarded to the appropriate department for future consideration. Without feedback such as this, we are not provided the opportunity to address areas where we can improve. Please do not hesitate to contact the Customer Service Call Centre at 1-800-SHOPPERs should you have any further questions or comments or require immediate assistance. Best regards,
Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix Customer Service
I'm gonna start sending them a lot of proofs that their products infringe on labelling rules, especially when it concerns the questionable French used on products. Let's see how fast they react and change their labels, including those of the many third party vendors they carry.