The federal government must lower the threshold in its Product of Canada food-labelling policy or it won’t do consumers or farmers any good, says Garnet Etsell, second vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
After years of lobbying by farm groups, the federal government decided last year to amend the Product of Canada regulations but instead of setting an 85 per cent minimum Canadian content as the CFA and the food industry recommended, it went for 98 per cent without any consultation or justification. Food companies say that’s unrealistic and farm groups agree.
The program was intended to help consumers pick out Canadian products on the grocery shelves but the current policy “just confuses the consumer even more than before,” Etsell said in an interview May 13. “It has made the situation worse. The whole thing is really quite bizarre.”
CFA, with the backing of other farm groups, lobbied Ottawa for a Grown in Canada label on foods to inform shoppers about products that had Canadian ingredients in them. Until then, foods that contained no Canadian ingredients could still be labelled Product of Canada.
However, with most food companies settling for Made in Canada rather than try to meet the stringent 98 per cent rule, frustrates Etsell because it means consumers still can’t select Canadian foods. He says he and other farm leaders have raised the issue in meetings with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz but the government “is unwilling to engage in consultations on the issue.”
Opposition MPs have raised the issue on numerous occasions in the Commons. The usual answer is the policy is there to help consumers. The ministers have hinted at possible changes but there’s no sign of any movement.
Etsell says getting the label changed is a priority issue for CFA but it’s hard when the government won’t even talk about it.
Nancy Croitoru, president, Food & Consumer Products of Canada, said in a statement that her organization backs Product of Canada labelling “to provide consumers with clarity about the origin of the foods they buy. We understand that there has been discussion proposing to modify the Product of Canada guidelines from 98 to 85 per cent Canadian ingredients. We support the farm groups in pursuing this option as it is a more realistic level to reflect the nature of Canada’s agricultural growing seasons and availability of Canadiangrown inputs.”
FCPC members manufacture 75 per cent of the items on grocery store shelves and use 43 per cent of what Canadian farmers grow. With the decline of the auto-manufacturing industry, food companies are the largest employer in Canada.
Jacques Legare, president of the Quebec-based council of food processors, told the Commons agriculture committee May 5 that jam makers who use only Canadian berries cannot put Product of Canada labels on their products because of the amount of imported sugar in them. “The greater majority of the product that we have manufactured here in Canada would comply with the 85 per cent.”
The food industry has repeatedly told the government the 98 per cent level is extreme and has to be changed for companies to participate in the Product of Canada labelling program, he said.
The Made in Canada label is for food products manufactured or processed in Canada regardless of whether the ingredients are imported or domestic or both. The last substantial transformation on the product must occur in Canada.