CALGARY — A group representing Canadian ranchers says their industry has been unfairly singled out by proposed new regulations that would require packaged ground beef to be sold with a health warning label.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association is crying foul over a proposal by Health Canada to introduce mandatory front-of-package nutrition labelling for pre-packaged foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
The goal, according to the Health Canada website, is to provide consumers with quick and easy nutrition information and encourage them to make healthier choices, and also to encourage food manufacturers to make healthier products.
The package labels would be applied to most foods that exceed 15 per cent of an adult's recommended daily intake of sodium, sugar or saturated fat. But some foods that are naturally high in sugar, such as unsweetened fruit, will be exempt from the labelling requirement, while dairy and eggs — though high in saturated fat — will also be exempt.
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said his industry can't understand why its product is being "vilified." He said Canadians consume approximately half of their calories from nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods, but by contrast, ground beef — while undeniably a source of saturated fat — is also a nutrient-dense protein that contains iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
"We believe there is a very, very compelling case to support an exemption," Laycraft said in an interview.
"The whole purpose of this (Health Canada proposal) largely came from a concern about highly processed foods, and foods with a lot of ingredients," Laycraft said. "The idea of taking a single-ingredient food product and imposing these types of labels is not being done anywhere else in the world, and it is going to unfairly affect Canada's farmers and ranchers."
Front-of-package nutrition labels exist in many countries around the globe. For example, Chile recently introduced a mandatory warning label on foods high in calories, sugars, sodium or saturated fat. The U.K. has a voluntary "traffic light" system that uses colours (red, amber, green) to convey a ranking for total fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in a food.
But Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said Health Canada's approach to the issue is incoherent. Not only does dairy get a pass while ground beef and pork do not, the proposed Health Canada regulations also exempt foods that typically come in small serving sizes such as condiments, some cookies and breakfast cereals, and bite-sized chocolate bars — even though these foods are far more nutritionally suspect than ground beef.
“I actually do feel that ground meat is being discriminated against, generally," Charlebois said. “This policy appears to be driven by some bureaucratic ideology.”
Charlebois said he's particularly concerned that the Health Canada push is coming at a time when consumers are facing rampant inflation and record-high prices at grocery stores.
"Fifty per cent of beef in Canada is sold as ground beef, and ground beef in particular has remained relatively affordable compared to other cuts at the grocery store," he said.
"Ninety-one per cent of Canadians actually eat meat on a regular basis. That's the vast majority of Canadians, so to basically label these products as unhealthy? I don't think that sends the right signal."
According to CCA figures, 50 per cent of beef produced in Canada is exported. In 2021, Canada exported more than 500,000 tonnes of beef valued at $4.47 billion. Laycraft said he worries that if Canada is alone in placing a health warning label on its beef, Canadian ranchers and beef processors will be at a competitive disadvantage.
"Any time you add a warning label to a product, over time generally that does cause some erosion in demand,” Laycraft said. “We believe it just would have a long-term reputational impact on our industry.”
In an email, Health Canada spokeswoman Marie-Pier Burelle said front-of-package nutrition labelling requirements are widely recognized by health organizations as an effective tool to help counteract rising rates of diet-related chronic disease in Canada.
She said not all ground meat would be required to carry a warning label, as "extra lean" ground beef and pork actually fall below the required maximum allowances for saturated fat.
"However, a (front-of-package) nutrition symbol on foods high in saturated fat (or high in sodium or sugar) would help make the healthier choice the easier choice for all Canadians," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press