Beef and dairy producers in Southwestern Ontario, one of the nation’s richest farm belts, are worried they’ll be put out to pasture in a substantial overhaul of Canada’s Food Guide and food-labelling laws.
Health Canada is on the verge of revising the guide, a staple of nutritionists and school health classes since 1942.
Farmers fear the changes will target red meat, cheese, butter and other foods once considered pillars of the balanced diet, in favour of a shift toward more plant-based proteins.
Beef and dairy groups say there isn’t any definitive science to discourage moderate consumption of red meat and dairy products. The groups say nutrition issues are being skewed by other factors such as environmental or animal-rights concerns.
The 10 counties in the London-Windsor region account for more than one-third of Ontario’s dairy production and about a quarter of beef production.
Paul Vis, a second-generation dairy farmer from Aylmer, said Health Canada appears to be under pressure to make changes that will hurt farmers.
“My gut feeling is that this is driven by groups who are against animal proteins,” said Vis, who manages a herd of 240 dairy cattle with his sons Jason and Kevin.
Dumping dairy from the food guide would have a long-term impact on the rural economy, Paul Vis said.
“If dairy does not have its own category, it has no importance.”
Health Canada also is moving on new labelling regulations that target packaged foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat.
Though Canada’s Food Guide may not be required reading for most consumers, agricultural groups say it still is influential in determining menus for public institutions such as hospitals and universities and has been taught to generations of school children.
Graham Lloyd, chief executive of Dairy Farmers of Ontario, said he expects low-fat dairy products will be downgraded as an “alternative” to plant-based proteins in the updated food guide. There isn’t any “conclusive” evidence to support reducing or eliminating dairy and meat products, he said, noting that a 2015 study by Health Canada said Canadians weren’t consuming enough milk products.
“We have a healthy, well-recognized product that for some reason the government is ignoring,” Lloyd said.
Mandatory warning labels for sugar, salt and fat content are arbitrary and could stigmatize foods such as cheese and yogurt that have high levels of protein, calcium and other nutrients, he said.
“A bag of potato chips may not get a warning label but a piece of cheese will. They are not looking at the overall nutrient benefit. They are just looking at a specific threshold.”
Matt Bowman, president of Beef Farmers of Ontario, said red meat, as part of a balanced diet, has been considered nutritious for decades, and changing the food guide would only further confuse the public.
“Having conflicting messages is never good for the public. These days, we can find a million opinions online and it’s hard to find the truth.”
In response to a request from The Free Press, Health Canada sent a brief emailed statement saying it was committed to a “transparent” process in reviewing the food guide, including consultation with the agriculture industry and the public.
“Health Canada is using the best available evidence in the revision of Canada’s Food Guide. The department recognizes the importance of understanding the totality of evidence, which includes high-quality, peer-reviewed systematic reviews, and reports from leading scientific organizations and governmental agencies.”
Sylvain Charlebois, dean of business and an agricultural expert at Dalhousie University, said he favours promotion of plant proteins because they are cheap and nutritious, but he sympathizes with food producers who will be forced to put warning labels on their products.
“Once they see that label, the market place will think your product is unhealthy.”
Charlebois favours a more nuanced approach such as red, yellow or green labels to recognize different levels of salt, sugar and fat.
Red meat, in moderation, is a healthful product, and bringing environmental and ethical issues into the food guide is “unfortunate,” Charlebois said.
In the past, agricultural groups have had direct meetings with Health Canada officials on issues such as the food guide. But in this revision, the farm groups have been told to submit their comments on the same basis as any other member of the public.
Conservative MPs on the House of Commons Agriculture committee recently moved a motion that could have revived face-to-face meetings between farm groups and Health Canada, but the motion was defeated by Liberal committee members.
Elgin-Middlesex-London MP Karen Vecchio said farmers are being shut out and treated like a business special interest group that doesn’t understand nutrition.
“They want to produce the best product possible and they should be at the table . . . We are underestimating the role of the farmer.”