Looks like we will all see different symbols on food packaging soon, telling us whether a food product at the grocery store has too much fat, sugar or sodium. Health Canada is likely going forward shortly with a policy requiring front-of-package nutrition symbols on foods high in saturated fat, sugars and sodium. It’s a concept that will provide clear, easy-to-read labels, but one part of Health Canada’s plan is a headscratcher.
The threshold Health Canada intends to apply is quite simple. For prepared food or processed foods, and foods intended solely for children 1 to 4 years of age, it’s 15% DV (Daily Values). This means that if a product’s serving exceeds 15% of the maximum daily allowance for saturated fat, sugar or sodium, a label will be predominantly placed on the package for the consumer to see right away. For prepackaged meals and dishes, the threshold is 30%.
On the face of it, the policy appears to make sense. It’s hard to argue against more clarity, more transparency, and as a result, better consumer health. But where things get murky is when we start looking at the list of exemptions. Many products will be exempt from this policy. For example, products at a farmers market, products not sold directly to consumers, non-processed raw single-ingredient meat and fish products, all dairy products, and eggs. The list includes technical, practical, and health-related exemptions, with 16 categories in total.
What’s surprising though, is that both ground beef and pork are not exempt. That’s right. This means that in a few months from now, ground beef and pork, two unprocessed, natural, and affordable animal protein sources, which many consumers eat every day, will be labelled as having too much saturated fat. Meanwhile, dairy products, which arguably contain at least as much saturated fat, are exempt.
Some sources believe the incredibly powerful dairy lobby provided enough evidence and scientific data to Health Canada to suggest that saturated fats found in dairy products are different, and healthier. That may be the case, but Health Canada certainly has some explaining to do, considering how it butchered dairy products with the latest food guide, released a few years ago. The lack of consistency is mind-blowing. In addition, both beef and pork do exceed thresholds set by Health Canada when products are raw, not cooked. However, few will eat these products raw. When cooked, saturated fat levels are normally below the Health Canada threshold.
What is critical here is protein affordability. While retail prices for beef and pork specialty cuts have skyrocketed in recent years, both ground beef and pork have been relatively affordable. In fact, almost 50% of beef consumed in Canada is ground beef. Still, Health Canada intends to slap a warning label on these products which are consumed by more than 90% of Canadians, while our food inflation rate is at about 10%.
Discriminating against these two products despite exemptions is likely driven by elitist nutritional ideologies fostered by some out-of-touch bureaucrats. It often feels as though Ottawa wants to save consumers from themselves. Such a theoretical narrative might go over well in Ottawa, but not so much at the average Canadian kitchen table.
Both beef and pork industries are not only important to our economy, but those sectors are also part of many Canadian traditions and are embedded in our culinary DNA. As we try to figure out how to lead healthier lifestyles, warning Canadians that these unprocessed food staples are now dangerous to their health doesn’t make sense. Dietary recommendations, like most things, should be applied in moderation.
Canada would become one of the first countries in the world to have a front-of-package policy targeting single-ingredient products. Many other countries before Canada with this type of labelling have not required single-ingredient products to have such warning labels.
At the core of the policy is the intent to help consumers make better, healthier choices at the grocery store, particularly when processed foods are involved. Requiring ground beef and pork to be labelled suggests that the spirit of the policy itself got lost between the several meetings Health Canada had with stakeholders while framing this policy.
In essence, Health Canada is purposefully aiming at two very important Canadian food staples that people have been consuming for centuries. Such a move makes no sense whatsoever. These products quite simply need to be exempt from new front-of-package labelling rules.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is a professor and senior director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University and co-host of The Food Professor podcast.