Comment: China clearly has Canada’s number on food safety

They’re using every tool they can to undermine Canada’s quality food brand, and we're losing the battle

Canada, along with other industrialized countries, is the victim in the issue of fraudulent documents in China. Food fraud is rampant throughout that country.

Canada is losing the game of food safety optics against China.

While Canada has demonstrated many times that its food safety record is outstanding, in fact, one of the best in the world, none of it matters now. Since Meng Wanzhou, the vice-president of Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018, China has been meticulously following a strategy to demonstrate its utter contempt for the arrest, and the effect has been dazzling. All of this was highly predictable.

The recent visit to Washington by Justin Trudeau and several connections with key leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka were likely in vain. Diplomatically, China has made Canada look like an amateur trying to play in the big leagues.

China has Canada’s food safety number, and it knows it. It started by targeting canola, a Canadian-designed product, known around the world. It used this Canadian symbol, along with absurd food safety claims, to make a point. Then it went on to restrict other grain imports like soya, again registering unusual concerns about the safety of grains being shipped. None of these claims have been supported by strong evidence by Chinese authorities.

And now, it is time to target meat. With meat, China made two interesting arguments. The first was related to ractopamine. Ractopamine has been banned in many countries, including China, and in Europe, but not in Canada. Ractopamine is a meal additive for animals, to promote leanness in animals raised for meat. Even though ractopamine is no longer used in Canada, China masterfully made this a legitimate point of contention to justify a ban on Canadian meat imports.

The other argument has to do with falsified veterinary documents found in China. China now claims that some Canadian documents have been falsified. Again, this is not news. First reports of falsified documents in China go back more than a decade ago.

Since the tainted infant milk scandal in 2008 when 54,000 children were hospitalized due to milk contaminated with melamine, China has never been the same. Food safety is on the mind of most, and the Chinese are now proactively looking for foreign products. And given the corruption and complex nature of the Chinese market, food fraud is rampant in the country and falsified documents allow some products to enter the supply chain, regardless of country of origin.

Canada, amongst other industrialized countries, is the victim in all of this, as its own brand is being exploited in China’s vast food supply chain. Again, this has been going on for years, but China is capitalizing on another weakness of ours to justify its ban at a very convenient time. Brilliant.

It is impressive to see how China has played with Canada over the last six months, and the latest instalment with meat is a master class. Given the arguments presented this week, China could have issued a ban on meat years ago, but it chose instead to do so now. So, it is almost impossible to believe that the trade restrictions imposed on Canada by China are not politically motivated.

Ottawa and Beijing cannot outright say so, but motivations for these bans are clearly not food safety related. Fans of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War would remember that the great warrior once said that all warfare is based on deception. Sun Tzu also argues it is important to be extremely prudent in choosing the timing of when to engage the enemy. This is perfectly applicable to what is happening. That is why most steps taken by Beijing against Canada have been so painfully foreseeable. Thus, Canada’s fish and seafood sector could be China’s next target.

As most realize, Canada is simply collateral damage in all of this. Sun Tzu also taught that the most logical way to confront one’s competition is to subdue them by never fighting them at all. The real enemy for China, of course, is the United States, not Canada. As China and the United States are dealing with severe diplomatic tensions, Beijing is simply targeting Canada’s food safety weaknesses to show China’s strength and influence.

China is attempting to break up North America’s camaraderie which has been in place for decades, to set a new narrative around global trade. With President Trump, one can argue that the camaraderie has already been weakened somewhat in recent years, and Beijing wants to further damage it. And it’s working.

Meanwhile, Canada is now desperately trying to find new markets for its grains and meat products and has had some success. Export of canola seeds to Pakistan increased by more than 150 per cent in the spring, from 65,000 tonnes to 162,000 tonnes, while exports to other markets remain relatively stable.

But farmers’ pessimism is evident as seeding for canola dropped by eight per cent this year. At harvest, Canada will have less product to sell, but this also could mean farm gate prices are on the rise. For meat products though, it is hard to replace China as a market. Not only do they pay a premium for meat, especially pork, China buys and consumes everything from an animal. Ears, eyes, hooves, you name it. The convenience that China represents is unmatched, so last week’s ban was a significant blow. An end to the U.S.-China spat could change everything and could put a stop to China’s wrath inflicted on Canada.

Let’s face it, Canada is losing in terms of strategy, being outwitted, constantly thrown off guard, always playing catch-up. Sun Tzu also suggested that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Canada has clearly chosen the latter approach.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.



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