CHESTERVILLE - When is a "Product of Canada" not a product of Canada? It may seem to be a contradiction but food labeling regulations in this country are so misleading that consumers are literally left holding the bag when they thought they've purchased a Canadian food product only to discover that they've bought a foreign-grown product that may have just been bottled or processed in Canada.
And that's misleading, according to Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Bob Friesen, who related to members of the Dundas Federation of Agriculture the CFA's attempts to bring a new voluntary "Grown in Canada" labeling campaign to put a stop to this confusion in the supermarket.
The CFA has been trying for several years to get the voluntary program in place and is closer now than ever in discussions with the grocery industry and food processors, Friesen told about 30 producers at the DFA annual meeting.
Because it would be a voluntary program, no new legislation is required although there would need to be changes to regulations under the current Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act to make clear definitions of "Made in Canada", "Product of Canada" and create a separate "Grown in Canada" for 100-per-cent Canadian grown products, Friesen said.
The confusion, he explained, comes from current CFIA regulations that allow a Product of Canada label if more than 50 per cent of its value is created in this country.
The food can be grown elsewhere, but if 50.1 per cent of its cost is Canadian then it becomes a Product of Canada.
Friesen gave the example of chopped garlic. The garlic itself is grown in China but it is processed and bottled in Canada. Since the value added in Canada can be more than 50- per cent of the cost, it qualified for a Product of Canada label. The same is true of orange juice and a range of products, such as honey, which may be labeled "Canada No. 1" leaving the consumer to think that he or she is purchasing a Canadian product when in fact the label is simply a quality standard.
The grown in Canada label campaign isn't related to the Americans' mandatory Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) program. It's inclusionary, rather than exclusionary and is completely voluntary, Friesen explained.
It's part of the CFA's Growing Forward program and in answer to a question from his audience, he said that right now the national federation is talking to processors ands retailers about setting up a steering committee to begin the process of establishing a clear definition of grown in Canada and how the plan would roll out on grocery store shelves.
Even the CVFIA is now considering changes to its less-than-clear Product of Canada definition, Friesen said.
The federation takes heart from the results of recent polling which show that a large percentage of the Canadians would be willing to pay a premium if it knew that it were purchasing grown in Canada products.
Ninety per cent of those questioned in a recent poll stated that they wanted to see a clear definition of what constitutes a Canadian product and nine out of 10 of those said they would buy a clearly-defined Canadian product as long as it was competitive (and that means safe as well as competitively priced, Friesen explained).
Fifty-one per cent of those questioned stated they would be willing to pay a premium to get Canadian products and 70 per cent of this group would be willing to pay a higher price if they knew that some of the extra would lend up at a Canadian farm gate.
Canadians have confidence in the safety of this country's agricultural products as evidenced by the fact that although our exports were severely curtailed during the BSE crisis, consumption of beef in Canada went up at the same time.
It's a positive program, Friesen emphasized, designed to forge an alliance between producers and consumer and to have Canadian productrs identified with a distinctively Canadian logo.
The program would be a federal extension of various provincial programs like the "Good Things Grow in Ontario" program here, British Columbia's "Buy B.C." and Manitoba's "Taste of Manitoba".
According to the CFA's web site, the Grown in Canada program would partner farm organizations and value-chain industry in taking the leadership to establish a non-profit governing body to set standards for the Grown in Canada label and work with CFIA in establishing an audit process to maintain label integrity.
On the issue of the broad marketing of Canadian-grown products, the federal government would be asked to establish an annual $20-million fund to develop a broad marketing campaign informing Canadian consumers of the nature of Canadian agriculture, supporting local communities, promoting Canada's strong record of farm initiatives for environmental sustainability, food safety and others.
It would also develop branding tools and knowledge: Farm and industry organizations would work in partnership with the government to develop information and business extension tools to facilitate producers' abilities to build brands, linkages with retailers, standards and audit processes to meet label standards locally, provincially and nationally. Funding for these programs would be within the Next Generation of Agriculture Policy, in its "innovation" objectives.
If a successful Canadian Label initiative could be achieved, the program could:
Strengthen prices for farm gate production and improve farm incomes through the marketplace.
Increase demand for Canadian product and the strengthened prices achieved would spur Canadian value added production.
The link to food safety programs and environmental stewardship with consumer choices will provide a market-based incentive to further such development.
Provide a market-based mechanism to increase capacity within the Canadian economy and achieve steps towards greater food security.