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Health Canada’s front of packaging labels criticized

Labels could hurt families struggling with high cost of living and producers already working to get back on their feet.
packaged ground beef
“Canada will be the only jurisdiction in the world placing a health warning label on its ground beef,” said Melanie Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers. “Alberta farmers and ranchers are struggling right now, and our federal government should be supporting our industry in the middle of a global food shortage, not working against it.”

WESTERN PRODUCER — Fearing the impact on consumer demand, Canadian livestock producers want ground beef and pork exempted from federal plans to put labels on packaging stating such products are high in saturated fat.

“Canada will be the only jurisdiction in the world placing a health warning label on its ground beef,” said Melanie Wowk, chair of Alberta Beef Producers. “Alberta farmers and ranchers are struggling right now, and our federal government should be supporting our industry in the middle of a global food shortage, not working against it.”

About half of Canada’s beef is destined for export, she said during a recent news conference in Calgary. She feared that “unnecessary trade implications may result from this decision, negatively impacting our already volatile international markets.”

Wowk called on Canadians to demonstrate their opposition via the website. It allows people to sign up to a campaign to put pressure on the federal government.

Proposed changes to federal regulations will require the front of packaging to contain labels informing consumers that ground beef and pork are high in saturated fat, said Alberta Agriculture, Forestry, and Rural Economic Development Minister Nate Horner.

“While I think we can all support the federal Healthy Eating Strategy in principle, Ottawa’s scientifically baseless labelling proposal for ground meat will unfairly impact families struggling with the high cost of living and would be an extra kick to producers already working to get back on their feet.”

However, Health Canada expects the labels will “help make the healthier choice the easier choice for all Canadians,” media relations adviser Andre Gagnon said in an email. “The intent is not to convey a warning, rather it aims to help reduce risks to health by providing consumers with quick and easy-to-use information on foods high in sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat.”

Wowk said Alberta’s beef industry employs more than 55,000 full-time workers and contributes more than $4 billion to the province’s gross domestic product. Many producers have been forced to downsize their herds due to the rising cost of inputs such as fuel and fertilizer, combined with severe drought last summer that boosted the cost of feed, she said.

Horner said the labels will deepen the problems faced by farmers and ranchers.

“This restrictive labeling proposal for ground meat could have significant market consequences for Alberta producers, increasing production costs, lowering consumer purchases and decreasing exports.”

The NDP critics for agriculture in the prairie provinces called on Ottawa to reconsider the labels. A letter was sent to federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau by Alberta critic Heather Sweet, Saskatchewan critic Trent Wotherspoon and Manitoba critic Diljeet Brar.

Quebec producers also oppose the labels, said Kirk Jackson, a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association who farms in Saint-Anicet southwest of Montreal. It is a major issue for the province because a large portion of its ground beef comes from dairy cattle, he said during a recent news conference.

“Helping consumers make healthy eating decisions at the grocery store is an important goal, especially when it comes to reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods. However, including ground beef, an affordable, nutritious, versatile protein and a staple food for most Canadians, is misleading and simply doesn’t make sense.”

Wowk said nearly half of the beef consumed in Canada is in the form of ground beef, “yet Health Canada intends to place a warning label on a product which is consumed by more than 90 percent of Canadians that will minimize its nutritional benefits by oversimplifying it with a high-in-saturated fat label,” she said.

“I don’t have to tell you that we’re all currently living with record high food inflation, and now is not the time to vilify a single ingredient and readily available nutrient dense food product.”

However, Gagnon said the labels will complement existing initiatives such as the revised Nutrition Facts table displayed on food packaging, as well as Canada’s Food Guide that includes recommendations for healthier eating.

“These labels are widely recognized by health organizations as an effective tool to help counteract rising rates of diet-related chronic disease in Canada.”

Average intakes of saturated fat, sugars and sodium remain above recommended limits in the Canadian population, he said. Scientific evidence has shown that unhealthy diets with high levels of these nutrients are risk factors for illnesses such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes, he added.

However, Alberta livestock producer associations and the provincial government want an exemption for ground meat similar to that for other single-ingredient foods such as milk, eggs, vegetables and other meats, said a provincial statement.

The labelling of whole, single-ingredient foods such as ground beef contradicts the foundational principles of healthy eating and distracts from the real priority for nutrition, said Keith Gregory, vice-chair of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association.

“Canadians need to reduce their consumption of high-processed foods. Ground beef is a healthy, affordable protein that can contribute iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and other essential nutrients that many Canadians need more of in their diets.”

Although it is important for consumers to be mindful of fat intake, more than 40 percent of saturated fat in Canadian diets comes from processed foods, including plant-based products, said Martin Waldner, executive director of Alberta Pork.

“Ground meat is a healthy, unprocessed, affordable staple in the diets of many Canadians where less than 10 percent of the saturated fat in most diets comes from fresh red meat … Pork fresh or ground is a nutrient-dense way for many Canadians to get nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B12 in their diet.”

Although the provinces have equivalent expertise in food science and nutrition, the federal government did not consult with them about the proposed labels, said Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping.

Although he agreed with the general intent to help consumers make healthier choices, the federal government is getting it wrong in this instance, he said. “Ground beef and ground pork are whole foods. They’re good food, and that’s what we should be telling Canadians.”