By Ian Cumming
Diafiltered milk is a unique Canadian term. No one else in the world uses it. In fact “diafiltered” is not a word that this computer recognizes as belonging in the English language.
Yet this milk is the subject of Parliamentary trade and agriculture hearings, tractor protests on Parliament Hill and has resulted in a bitter division pitting the Ontario milk marketing board against the Quebec marketing board and Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC).
Quite simply, and without scientific jargon, this diafiltered product is milk that has been ultra-filtered twice, to capture a syrupy liquid that is 85 per cent protein.
The Americans, using a cheap milk source, manufacture it. But the product has to be used in cheese processing within 76 hours of making it. So U.S. processors, close to the Canadian border, are making it and sending it here.
With cheap American milk, there is no financial benefit for U.S. processors to manufacture the syrupy protein product for their own use. But there are incredible profits in shipping the syrup into Canada for processing here. Especially if there is no tariff to pay at the border crossing. And there isn’t. But why not? Under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada agreed not to add any new dairy products to the tariff listing, thinking we had covered every milk product under the sun. Until crafty U.S. processors invented a new one.
One truck load of this product equals a large number of milk trucks — about a 1-to-7 ratio — so there are incredible transportation savings as well.
The Canadian processors are cunning in a self-interested way, and several years ago, having this then-secret scientific breakthrough in their hip pocket, approached the Canadian government that was implementing cheese standards at the time.
Some EU cheeses that were being imported were undergoing a one-process light-ultrafiltering overseas when the cows went out on fresh grass, just to give it more fat and protein to help in manufacturing. Canadian cheese processors told our government that “ultrafiltered milk” should be necessarily allowed in Canadian cheese processing. Otherwise, there would be a trade kerfuffle over mere language, involving a few blocks of specialty cheese. Best to avoid that, lads.
The producer organizations, having no clue of this new technology, when approached by the government for their approval, agreed, as if it was some mere tidying up of bureaucratic language. Nothing to see here. Move along.
“It was easy” to get approval for this specialized milk, a cheese industry insider told me. He noted that the government and producer organizations had “no idea” of what was going on within the processing sector. “They’re not in our business,” he said.
So if farmers are wondering how the same filtered milk can legally enter this country as a non-dairy item, travel a few kilometres and be dumped into a cheese vat, now you know how it was done.
Embarrassed producer groups — although not one has ever publicly admitted to dropping the ball or not being aware — came up with the term “diafiltered,” thinking that would force the government to enforce the cheese standards and block the U.S. filtered milk at the border.
But blocking the filtered milk would provoke a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Both the Liberal and Conservative governments knew it. Lawyers would be arguing along the lines that if you showered twice it would no longer be called taking a shower, but a “diashower.”
I know, that’s not a word. But neither is diafiltered.
There would be huge money and possible trade repercussions to other Canadian agriculture sectors. But imagine WTO lawyers arguing that two filterings are no longer filterings but diafilterings. After all, that word’s now in the Canadian dairy lexicon.
No one in the government bureaucracy, or in either political party, wants to go there.
Hence the Liberal politicians are delighted with the Ontario approach of lower priced (class 6) milk, to keep out imports.
But not everyone is happy. The lower-priced domestic milk is bitterly opposed by Quebec and DFC, which both testified Sept. 20 on Parliament Hill that they want the government to correct the mistake and enforce the intended cheese standards. They know full well that the “race to the bottom” in milk pricing only has one end.
Lastly, at a diafiltered county meeting in mid-September, a DFO board member assured the audience that when “(processors) stop watching us like a hawk,” the Ontario approach would kick in and flow.
Someone needs to remind him that processors always “watch like a hawk” and if producer organizations were doing the same — their job — they wouldn’t have been legally duped into losing millions of dollars.