The growing talk of a federal election this fall may derail efforts to get Product of Canada labelling shifted to a more realistic basis, industry observers say.
Last spring, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the minister of state for agriculture, launched an initiative to try to save the Product of Canada label from falling into complete disuse.
In a meeting with food industry officials, he offered an exemption for sugar, salt and vinegar used in making a food product when determining whether its contents were 98 per cent Canadian. Food industry officials welcomed the offer and said they hoped to broaden it to cover other difficult-to-source ingredients.
Blackburn promised consultations through the summer to find a solution to the impasse created in 2008 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised the industry with his 98 per cent Canadian content rule.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched consultations after the minister’s announcement. They were expected to conclude this summer with a report to the minister later.
A year and a half has passed since the Product of Canada label changes, and they’re a rare sight in grocery stores because few food companies can reach the 98 per cent level consistently.
The food industry supported the Commons agriculture committee recommendation of 85 per cent Canadian content. It was to be a big improvement over the 51 per cent content rule that had been in place for decades.
Blackburn said in April he hoped to have the policy clarified by the end of the year.
However, if a federal election is called, the consultation work would be shelved at least until after the vote. The process could easily be delayed for a year.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture led the original charge to get Product of Canada labelling changed from the 51 per cent rule, because a food qualified even if none of the ingredients were produced in Canada.
In addition to Product of Canada, the government allowed Made in Canada labels for products that contained a majority of Canadian ingredients but not enough to reach 98 per cent. The food industry generally supported the Made in Canada label.
Meanwhile, the CFA continues to push for “Grown in Canada” labels to support Canadian farm products. It is also working with the food industry on the development of a National Food Strategy.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has done a lot of work on developing a Canada Brand program to promote food exports and is considering whether a similar initiative would aid sales from domestic producers in Canada, according to Janice Vansicle.
Vansicle, the executive director of the Canada Brand office, said in an interview it has come a long way from the original CFA proposal of a green maple leaf on Canadian foods.
Canada can’t compete with all the low-cost food producing countries but it can offer other attributes such as superior food safety, traceability and environmental sustainability, she noted.
Funding for the Canada Brand campaign came from the government’s Growing Forward program and the 2009 Economic Action Plan. The Canada Brand office works with provincial food export promotion programs.
“We look at how the whole country could be involved,” she adds. It also makes use of the agriculture and trade commissioners stationed around the world.
The United States remains the biggest customer for Canadian foods but Japan, Mexico, Russia, Taiwan and India are other promising markets, she noted.
So far, evidence the program works is anecdotal, although there are some success stories, she explains. The maple leaf symbol is well known around the world. “Companies say it helps to have it on their labels.
“We try to keep up a consistent message about the Canada Brand. We highlight research that shows Canadian food is trustworthy.” One slogan the campaign uses is “Quality is in our Nature.”
“We’re still trying to build industry awareness of the Canada Brand campaign and what it takes to be compliant with it,” she said.
“Companiessay ithelpstohaveit ontheirlabels.”
– JANICE VANSICLE ON THE MAPLE LEAF SYMBOL