Canada must do more to defend its food quality

It is a salient observation: “Our food has never been safer, ever, in the history of mankind and it’s never been more scrutinized, either.”

That timely conclusion comes courtesy of Alberta feedlot owner Les Wall of KCL Cattle Co. while chatting with a Western Producer reporter.

It’s timely because we are seeing Canada’s grain reputation come under attack in two countries — Italy and India — where malevolent public campaigns are being waged against Canadian grain and pulses.

These campaigns are being fuelled — perhaps inadvertently — by actions of government agencies in the two countries.

Until 2016, up to 25 percent of Canada’s durum was shipped to Italy. But that year the Italian government passed a law banning pre-harvest glyphosate use.

Testing that can now measure parts per billion was bound to find some residue in Canadian wheat, so Italy’s largest agricultural organization, Coldiretti, then reportedly tipped off the Italian armed forces about a Canadian wheat shipment, which was then seized at port.

Canadian grain was vilified as “contaminated” by farm groups and in public demonstrations. One headline read: “Canadian wheat contaminated, large-scale seizure.”

Testing showed chemical residues to be well within safe levels. The $250 million market for Canadian durum in Italy has since dried up.

In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority, a government agency, issued a statement recently saying that dal (a popular dish made from spiced lentils) may be unsafe to eat regularly due to high glyphosate levels.

One article in the Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper, said lentils from Canada and Australia are “seriously laced with toxic ingredients” that might include herbicides such as glyphosate.

The CFIA was even cited as a source.

“Tests conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency … on thousands of samples of lentils like moong (dal) produced by farmers in Canada and Australia found an average 282 parts per billion (0.282 parts per million) … and 1,000 parts per billion of glyphosate, respectively, which is extremely high by any standards,” the Times of India article said.

The maximum residue limit for glyphosate in Canadian wheat, which is set by an international food standard initiative known as Codex, is four parts per million, so residue levels in lentils were safe.

Yet one headline in the India times read: “FSSAI claims your moong, masoor dal is poisonous!”

Such nefarious statements are bound to lodge in the psyche of consumers over the long term. In India and Italy, these campaigns leave an undeniable impression that Canadian durum and lentils cannot be trusted.

Yet results of an investigation released last year by the CFIA concluded that glyphosate levels in Canadian grain are “not a safety issue.”

The problem may be exacerbated if other countries start to see this type of campaign as a legitimate tool to protect their domestic markets.

Whether it’s up to the agriculture industry or the federal authorities, Canadian officials should communicate with traders that non-tariff trade barriers will be handled through proper procedures (Italy’s COOL legislation may yet be appealed by the Canadian government) but that false information that permanently stains Canadian exports must stop.

We need to say what Les Wall said, more often. And we need to stand behind it.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.


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