Government negotiators over the last 80 years successfully reduced many of the tariff (tax) and quota (volume limit) barriers to trade, especially between industrialized nations. But as those barriers fall, new ones rise. A free trade agreement between nations typically removes tariffs, but not barriers related to standards, product safety and testing, and labeling, just a few of many "non-tariff" barriers to trade.
Canada is the United States' largest trading partner and a frequent first export market for U.S. companies. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) means we have a free trade agreement with Canada as well as Mexico but doesn't make trade free, just potentially tariff free. Depending on the product, all kinds of requirements may still have to be met to legally sell in the Canadian market. One of the most basic is about product labeling.
Canada requires different items for product labels than does the United States. That means simply putting a U.S. package in the box and shipping it to Canada would likely be in violation of Canadian law. Companies may argue that they have never gotten in trouble before, but just because they have yet to experience enforcement actions and penalties doesn't mean they won't in the future. Good business strategy is to comply with laws to avoid delays and penalties. Being strategic also means that packages should be designed to serve multiple markets, unless an export market is large enough to warrant its own run of packaging.
Packaging is expensive and when it is being developed or updated is the best time to ensure compliance with laws in the firm's major markets. A simple change is that Canada and many international markets require the net quantity, whether volume or weight, to be measured in metric units. Canada also requires both French and English on at least some of the components of the label. The Product Identity Declaration states the product's generic name or function and must be bilingual. The manufacturer's name and postal mailing address must be present in either language, and the country of origin (Made in the USA for example) should be included.
Food products may face special requirements. The kinds of claims that can be made about the benefits of products on the products' labels vary from nation to nation. For example, the U.S. Agriculture Department is reported to be developing standards for a "GMO free" label. Terms such as "healthy," "organic," or "all-natural" may be allowed, disallowed or require different levels of proof as products and packaging move from market to market. This is also true for environmental claims. Even relatively weak claims about being friendly to the environment may require significantly higher levels of proof or simply be disallowed.
If the product is destined for Quebec, a significantly greater portion of the labeling has to be in French, so companies that are selling to all Canadian provinces may need to meet this requirement up front rather than packaging differently for the Quebec market. Search www.export.gov/canada for more information and links on all the packaging and labeling standards and for contact information for U.S. Commercial Services representatives that can help you understand and meet the requirements.
Many companies start their Canadian exports with their U.S. packaging, upon which they have placed stickers that meet the Canadian labeling requirements. While placing stickers takes time, it is often the cheapest way to get started selling products in Canada. As new runs of packages are needed, the labels can be updated to more attractively and efficiently address the needs of both the U.S. and Canadian markets.
If Canada isn't your target foreign market, chances are yours too has unique requirements for what must be, shall not be, or can be included on a package label. U.S. Commercial Services is a great source of basic guidelines on the labeling requirements in most international markets. Find representatives at www.trade.gov/cs.