An action plan to help the Canadian food industry expand its international presence could pay dividends for Canadian farmers as well, says Jean-Pierre Blackburn, minister of state for agriculture.
“The food processing sector can help propel Canada’s economic recovery,” Blackburn told reporters after a meeting with 50 representatives of the food industry. “This is why we are committed to continuing our hard work to guarantee the success of this sector.”
Boosting overseas exports will increase processors’ demands for meat, grain and vegetables, many of which can be grown in Canada, he added.
The minister also outlined proposals the government will make to food processors to end a row over the Product of Canada label scheme originally advocated by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
CFA had recommended an 85 per cent domestic ingredient threshold for products labelled as Product of Canada. Although the limit was also endorsed by the Commons agriculture committee, the Harper government set it at 98 per cent, which effectively excludes most products. There are few if any Product of Canada labels in regular use, which frustrates CFA.
Blackburn said the government is willing to exempt sugar, salt and vinegar used in foods products from the 98 per cent limit. Government spokesmen were unable to say how much that change might lower threshold for Product of Canada.
CFA past president Laurent Pellerin says the organization is considering how much exempting those products will lower the Product of Canada 98 per cent rule. “It’s a good start and we’ll look at whether other ingredients should be on the exemption list.”
What CFA wanted was a system that, for example, allowed a maker of strawberry jam to be able to label it Product of Canada if he or she used Canadian strawberries but the source of added sugar didn’t really matter, he added.
Jim Goetz, vice president of provincial affairs at Food and Consumer Products of Canada, which represents most food processors, couldn’t estimate the impact of exempting the three ingredients from the 98 per cent requirement.
He expects the association will recommend other ingredients for inclusion in the exemption list. The list is needed to cover ingredients required in processing but which aren’t available in Canada year round. FCPC supported the 85 per cent limit as reasonable.
Blackburn wants to wrap up the consultations of the Product of Canada label by the summer and the action plan by the end of the year. The plan will “help to equip the industry to address current market challenges and position Canada as a world leader in food processing.”
The food and beverage processing industry is the largest manufacturing employer in Canada and produces annual shipments worth $19 billion.
Work on the action plan began last year when Blackburn met a small number of food processing representatives. “Its main themes are addressing productivity, gaining access to capital, obtaining agricultural inputs at competitive prices and gaining access to labour.”
Improving market access applies to both the domestic and foreign markets, he said.
Innovation is also crucial for the food industry, he said. “Without it, we will not remain leaders in our field and will not be able to remain competitive in the market.”
He said the government would act on complaints about the regulatory load facing domestic manufacturers compared to imported products. The issue is whether the imports come from a country with comparable food safety regulations, he said. “Do they have the same requirements as we do here in Canada, since we must compete with those products from elsewhere?”