Drop front of package labelling focus

The country’s agriculture ministers recently met in Vancouver to discuss what will threaten and what will strengthen Canada’s agriculture and agri-food industries.

They addressed mounting trade tensions, the stability of supply management and the imminent labour shortage crisis, to name just a few of the issues on the agenda. These are the big-ticket items drawing critical attention from the agriculture community.

This is, after all, a time of uncertainty for Canada, confronted with an onslaught of highly charged and consequential economic challenges. It is a time to press the reset button and focus on the big-ticket issues.

So why, then, with this backdrop, are we still moving forward on measures that would make Canada a regulatory outlier among our major trading partners, reduce growth and steer our policy leaders’ attention away from what really matters?

Case in point: the government’s continued time and energy invested on political proposals like the Healthy Eating Strategy, and experimenting with front-of-package (FOP) labelling with upwards of half of the food products on our grocery store shelves. FOP reaches in to every facet of Canada’s agriculture and food-related industries and is distracting everyone, industry and government, from the immediate threats on our doorstep.

Putting bad timing aside, let’s unpack some real problems with the proposed front-of-pack program.

The cost of the front-of-pack labelling system to made-in-Canada food manufacturers could range from $800 million to more than $2 billion. This broad range exists because government can’t even agree with itself on which number to believe. Health Canada projects 37,600 products to be affected by front-of-pack labels, while Agriculture Canada’s estimates land in the field of 84,000. With each department calculating different costs per product, we are left with big questions and concerns about how this is going to affect a key Canadian industry, with jobs and investments in every corner of this country, especially when facing international headwinds.

Adding to that, more than two-year-old changes to the Nutrition Facts Table, the window every Canadian knows and uses to understand their food, have yet to be rolled out. Health Canada estimates that the front-of-pack labels will demonstrate the same level of benefit to Canadians as the re-vamped and revised Nutrition Facts Table. And yet, the two initiatives will come into force at the same time, pinning front against back to compete for consumer attention and understanding.

If the impact numbers don’t add up, surely the evidence does. There is no clear research to back front-of-package’s effectiveness in making Canadians healthier. Plus, there has been an absence of meaningful consultation with those most impacted by the FOP program.

This is concerning behaviour from a government that prides and advertises itself on evidence-based decision-making and consultation. If the goal is policy backed by sound, high-quality evidence and decisions that clearly demonstrate that cost-benefit analyses were conducted, neither of those prerequisites have been achieved here.

It seems clear that this is a political solution to a problem that pales in comparison to those on our collective doorstep in the world today.

Now is the time to rally together to secure our shared interest in a healthy economy, especially in our vital sectors, during this time of threat. Now is the time to pull our resources together to keep our agriculture and agri-foods industries strong.

Now is the time to shelve front-of-package labelling.

Christopher White is president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Meat Council.

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