Evidence of meeting #27 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was product.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Kim Jo Bliss  Director, Local Food For Local People
Charles Tanguay  Communications Officer, Union des consommateurs
Michel Arnold  Executive Director, Option consommateurs
Nalini Vaddapalli  Lawyer, Agri-Food Analyst, Option consommateurs
Jennifer Hillard  Research Director, Consumer Interest Alliance Inc.

9:05 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

We have quorum, so we're going to get started.

Continuing on with our study on “Product of Canada” claims, this is meeting 27. I want to welcome all our witnesses today.

By video conference we have, from Local Food For Local People, Kim Jo Bliss.

Welcome, Kim.

From the Union des consommateurs, we have Charles Tanguay.

From Option consommateurs, we have Michel Arnold and Nalini Vaddapalli.

From Consumer Interest Alliance Inc., we have Jennifer Hillard.

I want to welcome all of you to committee. This has been a very interesting study that we've undertaken. We're getting lots of good ideas. We're looking forward to your comments. I ask that all opening comments be kept to ten minutes or less. I'll signal to you if you're pushing the ten minutes.

With that, I'll open it up to Mrs. Bliss. You have the floor.

9:05 a.m.

Kim Jo Bliss Director, Local Food For Local People

Good morning, everyone.

I apologize for reading from my notes. I have been out of town so I'm going to read from my notes.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Most of the things I will speak about today were brought forward in the Next Generation of Agriculture and Agri-Food Policy's submission from Rainy River, which Ken is quite familiar with. During that process, we suggested as an alternative vision for agriculture a truly sustainable industry that focuses on delivering wholesome food and non-food products and services to local markets and to all Canadians before serving offshore markets. Guiding principles are fairness, environmental responsibility, and regional diversity and self-reliance.

Since I was asked to speak on behalf of the Rainy River Local Food for Local People committee, the CFIA definition of local food is a great place to start. CFIA states that goods must originate within 50 kilometres of where they are being sold in order to be labelled “local”. So within the Rainy River district, honey that is produced in the west end of our district cannot be labelled “local” if it is offered at the farmers' market in Fort Francis.

The most logical local market for Rainy River products is the rest of northwestern Ontario, which is not suited for food production--for example, Kenora, Dryden, Sioux Lookout. Even though we are the closest producers, we cannot be considered local under this flawed definition. A national definition of “local” must take into account the local realities.

With respect to issues with Canadian inspection, interprovincial borders hinder the sale and transport of beef, hog, poultry, and produce, making it hard for producers to compete at the national level. CFIA inspection fees are paid by producers and plants in Canada but are funded in the U.S. by the government, thus creating another competitive disadvantage for us.

National meat inspection legislation is called for that fits all Canadian meat. Currently, producers cannot direct market their product to other provinces or national retailers without federal inspection. One level of inspection would eliminate this. A national standard would help so that all provinces compete on one level playing field.

Another example, for instance, is Ontario, which is the only province to limit the flocks of laying hens to less than 100. Other provinces allow farmers to run hundreds of birds without a quota.

Imported foods. We realize this will continue, but to prevent unfair competition, imported foods must be required to meet the same safety and quality standards as domestic products. Imported food should have a sticker that states “imported”, or the country of origin.

Definitions should be made clearer. “Made in Canada”, “Product of Canada”, and our “Grown in Canada” are clearly misleading. Large companies continue to get around current labelling systems by bringing products into our country, making the minimal change and labelling it the product of Canada. This is clearly false and gives the consumer misinformation.

Labels need to send a clear message. They are clearly misrepresented when the product is imported, but because they have been packaged or advertising dollars were spent in Canada, it can read “Product of Canada”. It places no value on the product itself.

Greater value should be placed on Canadian products than on imported food. Regulations should accommodate small, local, and artesian food production. Producers should be allowed to supply local markets by selling vegetables, meat, eggs, and milk at the farm gate.

Local food systems will result in a safer food supply, fresher products, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better environmental stewardship, increased farm incomes--with more jobs remaining in the area--and a healthy population.

Given the recent worries with tainted food, Canada must demand the same standards on the foreign products as it does on the domestic. Anything grown or caught in a country should state so on the label. Current rules are stopping us from making the changes we need.

When you factor in that we are losing the ability to feed ourselves as the food we eat is increasingly imported, it quickly becomes clear that we are at a crossroads in the history of our food production and distribution systems. We need widespread change and reform.

A food system that is suitable will be financially viable for all stakeholders, primarily local and regional, ecologically responsible in its operations, and socially responsible. Government assistance should go toward supporting and building infrastructure that will stabilize agriculture.

Developing new products is difficult because we now compete with highly subsidized imports and third world labour. A new rule by CFIA requiring nutrition labelling on all products at $6,000 per analysis, so we've been told, will be prohibitive for small-scale local food processors. A small processor cannot afford these large costs. This puts local foods at a disadvantage and small processors out of business.

As we speak, Canada is losing its last canning factory. Costs have substantially increased to the point at which they can export the product and have it processed and brought back into the country with fewer costs attached. The latest SRM rules are very costly and are putting the small plants in a terrible predicament.

The local plants are key for local food, but the large expanse of SRM disposal is putting many out of business. Sadly, CFA allowed feed companies to include animal protein in the feed formulation made for ruminants. This is what triggered BSE. BSE was a costly incident, and the costs continue with the new SRM regulations. The large companies that triggered this problem should be held responsible for cost recovery of the BSE damage. The recent rule has played a role in the closure of the GenPar food plant, which is another letdown for the beef industry.

Currently, our system is not designed to give producers a fair shake. The value chain is not serving producers well. Producers, processors, retailers, and consumers should all be treated fairly. Regulation allows for dominance by big chains. Regulation eliminates production of local food, and everyone becomes a franchisee of big-label companies. Currently, a producer isn't getting what he needs to make money and value has to be added, but the system is currently helping only the food distributors and grocery stores. Profit is built into the cost of a product coming into a plant instead of it being the cost of production plus the cost of materials. The focus needs to be on meeting local market needs in supplying Canadian people before serving our offshore markets. We need to promote local food, and we need a solution and a plan now.

As the cost of energy continues to rise, we need to develop a local food initiative so that we are not so energy dependent. If energy prices continue to increase, we will see a huge change. Food may then only migrate to the largely populated centres on the major highway routes. We need a plan to sustain food for the hinterland and become regionally more self-reliant. This will mean generating knowledge of how to grow our food and how to preserve it. We may also have to learn to accept a more seasonal diet. Luckily, in Rainy River we have plenty of beef.

Small-scale alternative energy production on farms should be encouraged. These would be less vulnerable than large-scale production and would ensure a more stable and diverse power supply.

In order to develop a system now, we need to eliminate laws and regulations that hold us back. The plan needs to include all ages, and especially our youth. Schools could start by growing their own healthy snacks for the classroom. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity.

Currently, Clover Valley Farmers' Market in Fort Frances is about to launch a very exciting project. They're working with others to develop a regional local food box program. This program will increase local food production and is breaking ground toward a less centralized food supply.

Rainy River District feels that the local food movement is here to stay, and we would like all government levels to cooperate to make local food a reality. Local food production has the potential to affect every one of us. We will be looking for more farmers as this new movement grows. Canada may never produce all of what we will consume, but even a small shift toward eating Canadian will have a dramatic impact on the agriculture industry.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the need for national legislation for meat inspection, eliminating the provincial barriers. Changes need to be made to labels of imported food, and Canadian producers should not be burdened with regulations that won't allow them to compete. We need to create a workable solution for local food production and we need to develop and create partnerships to educate the needs for and benefits of local food.

Thank you.

9:15 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you very much.

Monsieur Tanguay.

9:15 a.m.

Charles Tanguay Communications Officer, Union des consommateurs

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Lady and gentlemen, thank you for inviting us.

My name is Charles Tanguay and I am the Communications Officer for the Union des consommateurs. The Union des consommateurs is a federation of Quebec associations comprising 11 consumers’ associations.

My presentation is going to go beyond the confines of the original subject of the labelling of food products so as to take into account, more generally, the concerns of consumers with regard to the labelling of food. This was the subject of a study done in 2007 by the Union des consommateurs and financed by the Office of Consumer Affairs at Industry Canada. Indeed it dealt with the new trends and needs of consumers concerning information about food and labelling. This study is available to you, should you wish to find out more.

The first finding is that information is one of the most important rights for consumers. It enables consumers to make choices. With respect to food, consumers’ concerns are changing and information is becoming increasingly crucial in meeting consumers’ needs.

I shall deal briefly with this broader aspect of consumers’ concerns. In the 21st century, these concerns are no longer limited to health and convenience. The policies promoting international trade mean that the multinationals in the agri-food sector are constantly increasing their control over our food and increasingly are shaping our agricultural and food models by contributing notably to the impoverishment of our food culture and distancing us from the productive resources. The consequences of enforcing policies focused on export markets have also had an impact on food safety and are contributing to the broadening gap between the rich and the poor, between the countries of North and South, in addition to compromising our ability to exercise certain rights as consumers, including the right to information and the right to choose.

The new technologies, for example, the genetic manipulation of vegetable crops and the use of pesticides, rations and chemical fertilizers, underlie modern agricultural production methods, which cause considerable stress to the environment. The current agri-food system is generating new problems for ecosystems and for society, and gives rise to new concerns among consumers. Consumers’ worries, which were long limited to questions of food prices and safety, have broadened considerably and now increasingly include questions of health, convenience, and environmental, social, ethical and political concerns. This commitment to responsible consumption in the food sector may be seen around the world.

The evolution of consumers’ values and concerns about food closest to sustainable development may be seen now in the increasing demand for certain food products. For instance, more and more consumers are opting for organically grown food. During the 1980s and 1990s, the chief concerns motivating consumers to purchase organic food were based on protection of the environment, whereas today the surveys show more and more that these concerns are based on a range of other factors justifying their consumption of such products.

Consumers believe that organically grown food is safer and more nutritional, and tastes better, and that buying such food will provide support for small farming operations and local producers, a new relationship between people and agriculture, sustainable development and water conservation. In short, consumers who buy organic food do so in response to social, cultural and environmental concerns.

Organic farming is based on ecological principles that are respectful of the environment. Organic gardens avoid the use of pesticides and chemical herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified seed, while the fertility of the soil is increased by means of established methods, such as crop rotation, spreading composted organic matter and the use of natural fertilizer.

As for livestock production, no growth hormones, no feed made with animal scraps or antibiotics, and also decent living conditions that regularly allow the animals to see the light of day and move around. Finally, organically produced food items do not contain dyes, chemical preservatives, artificial smells or synthetic additives and have not been irradiated.

So we can understand why the consumption of organic food has increased by more than 20% a year in Canada, and close to 40% of the Canadian population say they buy organic products. The same trend may be seen internationally.

For reasons of health and on social, cultural, environmental, economic and political grounds, increasingly, consumers are going organic. A similar trend may be noted in the purchase of locally produced food. Many initiatives show that food systems focused on the community prove to be beneficial for several reasons. Consumers can feed on fresh food produced in their region. In addition, eating locally limits the use of preservatives and minimizes the transportation of food over long distances, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, local foods help reduce problems related to chronic hunger and promote rural development by stimulating the regional economy.

In Canada, farmers’ markets are extremely popular. Buying local is therefore one of the largest concerns of consumers that we were able to measure in a Web survey in which over 3,000 respondents took part. The majority of them were women, who were better educated than average and who had higher incomes than average. I will spare you the details about the questions and results of this survey, but you may consult it; it is very interesting.

To summarize, 71% of the respondents said they were quite well informed and 19% said they were very well informed about food and agri-food issues. The survey is therefore not representative of the Canadian population, but represents the opinion of people who, on account of their concerns and awareness of the issue, are a bit ahead of the Canadian population.

Judging by the general trend, consumers feel more concerned about this issue. The origin of products is important for 84% of them. Seventy-one percent of people seem to find it fairly easy to figure out the origin of products. However, I have the impression that many consumers read the information but do not understand it, since we know that the current rules allow misleading information on the origin of products on labels.

I think that this question is part of a whole set of very important concerns for consumers. Among the comments gathered from consumers, there is a general mistrust with regard to labelling rules and the claims found on labels. I think that consumers are more and more mistrustful of the information provided by the industry on consumer products.

Many tell us that the labels are hard to understand and several commented on the misleading aspects concerning the origin of products and demanded better traceability of food products.

In light of these findings, we have several recommendations to make in general on labelling. For example, we find it inconceivable that Canada has not always adopted the mandatory labelling of GMOs. We also recommend that labelling rules be better identified and that there be better guidelines with regard to organic products. Such rules could be based on the examples set in British Columbia and Quebec.

As for the origin of products, we recommend stricter rules so that we can find out much more about where products are from, where they are grown or raised, where they were processed and whether they have been imported.

We would also like the provincial governments, and also the Government of Canada, to invest in buy-local campaigns to promote the purchase of Canadian products. That seems important to us for a number of reasons. Canadian consumers would like to buy Canadian products.

Thank you.

9:25 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you very much.

Mr. Arnold, the floor is yours.

9:25 a.m.

Michel Arnold Executive Director, Option consommateurs

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My name is Michel Arnold and I am the Executive Director of Option consommateurs. I am accompanied by Nalini Vaddapalli, who is an agri-food analyst and lawyer with Option consommateurs.

Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen of the committee, I also wish to thank you for inviting us and for giving us an opportunity to share with you our thoughts on the main expectations and concerns of consumers with regard to agri-food product labelling. More specifically, we will look today at the terms “Made in Canada” and “Product of Canada,” and we will formulate some recommendations with a view to ensuring the confidence of Canadian consumers.

Option consommateurs is a non-profit organization that arose from the Association coopératives d’économie familiale movement, and more specifically the Montreal ACEF, created in 1983. We are a non-profit association and our mission is to promote and defend consumers’ interests and make sure their rights are protected. Option consommateurs has a team of some 30 professionals.

Over the years, we have developed our expertise in various areas, including budget and debt, financial services, health and agri-food, and energy, among many others. Each year, we have direct contact with between 7,000 and 10,000 consumers, give numerous interviews to the media and sit on many working committees and boards of directors. In fact, we were involved in the efforts to regulate organic products. We sit on the board of directors of the Canadian Organic Growers and in 2005 we produced a report on consumer awareness and educational campaign for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

With regard to consumer protection, the United Nations Guidelines provide the basis, reminding us, as Mr. Tanguay said, that consumers must be protected “from hazards to their health and safety,” that they have a right to “adequate information to enable them to make informed choices” and that measures to encourage “consumer education, including education on the environmental, social and economic impacts of consumer choice” must be implemented.

With regard to labelling, this means simplicity, reliability and transparency. Information given to the consumer must be credible and verificable.

As a result of the concerns raised about the safety of consumer products, including agri-food products, Canadian consumers are seeking more information than ever and they wish to be informed in order to make informed choices when they go shopping. We draw attention to the study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture on a Canadian-grown branding program and made public in June 2007. This study highlights the importance of balancing social and economic interests, and political choices in the agriculture and agri-food sector, because they have an impact on purchasing power and ongoing accessibility to food, and thus foster healthy eating for everyone.

To maintain consumer confidence, policies, laws and regulations must be clear and transparent.

The notion of transparency demands coherent actions that are consistent with the needs and expectations consumers have of the government and main players who provide us with our food.

Thus the abundance of logos, health claims and certifications only serves to undermine consumer confidence. Recent examples in the media have shown the importance of looking into the reliability of such information, because it has a great influence on consumers. If the purpose of the claims “Environmental Choice” and “Health Check” is to help consumers make responsible choices regarding the environment or their health, then they must also be sufficiently reliable to maintain consumer confidence in a product. As we have seen, however, this confidence has been sorely put to the test of late.

It must not be forgotten that consumers are not the only ones harmed; the other players in the food distribution chain are also affected, including those in the industry and those dedicated to protecting public health. In short, when the information conveyed to consumers does not meet their expectations, credibility and confidence are damaged. There will be negative fallout in all sectors, from field to table.

n short, when the information conveyed to consumers does not meet their expectations, credibility and confidence are damaged. There will be negative fallout in all sectors, from field to table.

9:30 a.m.

Nalini Vaddapalli Lawyer, Agri-Food Analyst, Option consommateurs

Merci. I want to apologize. I finished the translation last night, so if there are any typos in your document, I apologize for that.

Offering local products, meaning “Product of Canada” or “Made in Canada”, to the Canadian consumer is for safety, but increasingly it is to encourage local producers and our national economy. Canadian consumers are adopting this tendency, and it raises the importance of correctly identifying products grown by our farmers.

We would also remind that if importation is an economic reality of the agrifood sector, no less than 95% of Canadian consumers will prefer local products when prices are competitive and their quality is equal or greater to imported products. The origin of agrifood products is an undisputed cornerstone of consumer habits.

Safety and quality of products must be guaranteed wherever consumers go to fill their shopping carts—supermarkets, local markets, drugstores, and discount stores. It is a great challenge. The term “Canada” is an added value for agrifood products. Its usage must be permitted only if rigorous standards and criteria have been developed and the relevant authorities ensure they're respected.

A food product clearly stating the term “Product of Canada” or “Made in Canada” must reflect its reality. In other words, the components of the products must be authentic. For example, a food product that will bear the “Canada Organic” logo will indicate to the consumer that it contains at least 95% of organic ingredients. This must be the rule for all Canadian agrifood products; they must be produced or made entirely, or almost entirely, in Canada. From this standpoint, a reflection is necessary for the framing of these terms to ensure that consumers can make informed choices.

If more than half of Canadians often read the information on food labels, on the other hand, nearly half of other Canadians do not have the minimal level of skills to respond to daily life demands. On the matter of agrifood products at this time, a simple and clear text is an utmost necessity to help numerous Canadians make informed choices.

We salute the opportunity that is given to us to communicate the following recommendations in light of the preoccupation and expectations of Canadian consumers.

We recommend that the feedstock of a product bearing the terms “Product of Canada” and “Made in Canada” be grown in Canada.

We recommend that the threshold allowing usage of the term “Product of Canada” and “Made in Canada” be revised on a higher scale to ensure integrity and authenticity of Canadian agrifood products. To achieve this, the decision must be the result of a multi-stakeholder consultation, where all sectors of the food distribution chain are represented.

We recommend that for each term, additional information be included on the label to ensure transparency of the inherent process linked to the term used--for example, x percentage of materials and labour are from Canada. We recommend that a maple leaf be included when these terms are used in order to facilitate and favour a Canadian agrifood product.

We recommend that information be available to consumers at point of sale. The information must be concerned with a detailed meaning of each term used and the place visited.

Finally, we recommend that an education campaign for the greater public be developed and disseminated in prominent newspapers, local newspapers, on the television, and through the Internet. This campaign must relate to the terms used in the agrifood sector in order to highlight products that are made in and are from Canada. As such, it will increase the trust of Canadian consumers and contribute to the expansion of our own agrifood product market.

We thank you for your time and attention.

9:35 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you.

Ms. Hillard, you have the floor.

9:35 a.m.

Jennifer Hillard Research Director, Consumer Interest Alliance Inc.

Good morning.

The Consumer Interest Alliance Inc. would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear today and make some suggestions regarding the “Product of Canada” label and in particular its use on food products.

CIAI is an emerging organization of experienced consumer volunteers who are concerned with consumer issues and interests. CIAI is an incorporated not-for-profit organization, and it has been established to provide national consumer representation and research. CIAI works through cooperation, discussion, and representation with other players in the Canadian economy.

Its major areas of interest and activity include food and agriculture, health and environment issues as related to food and agriculture, national and international standards, and financial services.

CIAI welcomes the overall intent of the new food and consumer safety action plan that was announced following the November 2007 throne speech. In particular, we're encouraged by the intent to provide better safety information for consumers, build safety into industry supply chains, and require mandatory product recalls. There are many aspects of the action plan on which we have comments, but today we're addressing the need to improve communication with consumers relating to their food choices by making the “Product of Canada” designation more meaningful and less misleading.

The United Nations consumer bill of rights provides access to accurate information that is needed for consumers to make decisions. The proposed safety plan document devotes just one paragraph to the issue of “Product of Canada” and “Made in Canada”. However, CIAI believes that these labels and declarations are a critical basis on which to build and move toward product claims that are not misleading and that enable informed decision-making by consumers.

The need to provide Canadian consumers with accurate information on the source of their food is increasingly important, as events repeatedly draw attention to problems with some imported products. The current rules are unclear. CIAI would like to draw the attention of this committee to two issues that we believe require far better consumer communication. These are the 51% rule and the term “Canada grade”.

The 51% rule is permitted under the present legislation, as can be seen on the Competition Bureau website. It allows manufacturers and food processors to aggregate the value of processing and packaging to calculate that 51% of the value was generated in Canada. They can then state that a product is Canadian, even though for a food product this may mean that little if any of the nutritive value was grown in Canada. We would like to take the example provided by the CFIA website. Olives imported from Spain in bulk and repackaged in Canada in new brine become a product of Canada or produit du Canada, assuming that the 51% rule is satisfied.

The 51% rule is the policy adopted by the Competition Bureau, and quoting from that same web page, two conditions must be met in order to consider the product as being Canadian:

the product was created in Canada, i.e. the last substantial transformation was carried out in Canada, thereby resulting in a recognizably new final product, that is a product significantly different in appearance from the individual ingredients; AND the total cost of direct Canadian labour and/or additional Canadian ingredients represents at least 51% of the cost of production of the new product.

There are of course not many olive groves in Canada, and a consumer with reasonable geographic knowledge realizes that the “Product of Canada” term is hardly a description that will be understood or believed in either everyday official language.

Other examples are provided that are certainly less clear, even to a well-informed consumer. In reality, these guidelines address and drive economic added value and not food content value. Therefore, the value of processing and packaging in Canada has as much merit under the guidelines as the nutritive value of a Canadian-grown product. Under this guideline and its “Product of Canada” label, the Canadian food dollar is not about food but its role as an economic driver for the food processing and packaging industry.

To state our position, CIAI believes that when consumers purchase products that bear the Canadian name, they expect to purchase products that are actually grown or raised in Canada. The permitted identification of foods not grown here as “Product of Canada” is misleading to most consumers who, we believe, are more interested in the source of the ingredients than the manufacturing and processing.

Recent media coverage of fish products imported from Asia and processed on the east coast has raised consumer awareness of the fallibility of the 51% rule.

Such confusing and potentially misleading practices cause the consumer to lose faith in the relevance and accuracy of labels regarding Canadian origin. This lack of trust has unintended negative consequences, such as driving consumers to find other channels through which to find products that they believe are really Canadian—avenues such as farmers markets and direct purchase systems, which may bypass some of Canada's excellent food safety system. It also leads to encouraging the promotion of local food by provincial governments and/or agencies rather than creating a solid and reliable Canada brand, as was the intent of the first agricultural policy framework.

In addition, Canadian consumers are learning about food miles and the hundred-mile diet. Many want to purchase Canadian meat or produce wherever possible. The present practice of labelling products as Canadian may well drive consumers to purchase from sources not within the Canadian food safety regulatory system and thus take risks with their health, but even then, without getting the expected local product due to the 51% rule. Under the current system, a single-ingredient item that doesn't grow in Canada can be identified as a product of Canada and identified as being produced locally. For example, the “Buy Local” site provided by the Manitoba provincial government lists coffee as a local product.

CIAI therefore recommends that the 51% rule be allocated only to the value of the food content within the cost of production, as defined by the Competition Bureau, and also that the percentage be significantly increased.

We judge that exclusion of packaging from the transformation cost will have two principal benefits. First, it will connect the “Product of Canada” designation to the nutritive and food value of the purchase, and second, it will remove inducement to overpackage products.

In order to determine the appropriate percentage increase, the government needs to gather research data. One such source would be to determine what consumers understand by the term “Product of Canada” or “Made in Canada” and set appropriate guidelines to reflect this understanding.

In addition, the requirement of Canada's international trade agreements and the practices of its trade partners might provide guidance on transformation of products and values for import purposes.

In developing this requirement, CIAI would support the use of the national standard system to create a voluntary standard such as for organic production and then the referencing of the standard in legislation. This would not force producers and processors to identify Canadian product, but would ensure that if they do so, the identification would be accurate and not misleading. Such a standard could also be designed to ensure that any additional local identification, such as provincial, would be in the form of reliable consumer information. CIAI is not opposed to the concept of buying local, but an identification system must make it likely that consumers will indeed get local when the product is identified as such.

We support providing good information to consumers on the source of their food but do not support promoting the output of one province over another. We do not believe that to be in the best interest of Canada or Canadian consumers.

We would now like to turn to the concept of “Canada grade” and its potential for being misunderstood by the consumer. The recent concerns with honey imported from China and then blended into Canada grade honey and marketed as such has undermined the confidence of many consumers in products they believed to be Canadian. With the improvements in standards, increase in enforcement, and focus on consumer information that is being suggested in the food safety section of the action plan, we would recommend that one of the prime focuses of the communication effort be on explaining to consumers the real meaning of “Canada grade”.

Recent research performed by our organization has revealed some significant gaps in the ability of the CFIA to enforce the existing regulations that relate to food labelling, food advertising, and food standards. The new action plan describes better enforcement of food regulations with more tracking and tracing, new administrative penalties, greater transparency, less flexibility for information identified as CBI, and more power for the regulators. CIAI applauds all these initiatives, and we believe they will move us towards greater compliance.

Because I'm late, I'm just going to jump to our final recommendations.

We recommend that the regulations be put in place for the use of “Product of Canada” or “Made in Canada” declarations and that these declarations be simple, avoid the need for qualifying statements, and be the same for all consumer products.

We recommend that for food products, the 51% rule be allocated to the value of the food system to create a voluntary standard, such as for organic production, and then reference the standard in legislation. We recommend that the prime focus of the communication efforts be to explain “Canada grade”, and that it does not imply “Product of Canada”.

In closing, we applaud a lot of the actions that are being taken, and we'd like to encourage you to move forward, particularly with the consumer communication piece.

Thank you.

9:45 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you very much.

I want to thank all of you for your opening comments. We are now going to open it up to questions from committee members, with seven-minute rounds to start off with. If anyone wants to get in on any of the questions asked by a committee member, just raise your hand to signal to me. That includes you as well, Ms. Bliss.

With that, Mr. Boshcoff, please kick us off.

9:45 a.m.


Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Thank you very much, and thanks to all the presenters.

If there are going to be local food initiatives developed such as what we saw in the video of production across the country—and we have every indication to believe it's happening, not quite spontaneously, but there's certainly a movement out there driven by consumer demand—the whole notion of how we're going to label these products...we know that Canada doesn't grow that many pomegranates and pineapples, yet we see those. Ms. Bliss identified the aspect that a lot of this labelling was actually setting back these kinds of local initiatives and making it difficult to compete.

I'm wondering if the panel can relate some experiences they have had so that we as a standing committee can see what's happening in the field as people try to move from their initiatives into the realm of competition and find themselves stymied. That's my first question.

9:45 a.m.

Lawyer, Agri-Food Analyst, Option consommateurs

Nalini Vaddapalli

I think it's always a challenge when people want locally grown food but also to have a variety of food. For the consumer, when you're buying a product that's not grown in Canada but it's available in local markets.... From our point of view, local markets are also about accessibility. There are many places, many neighbourhoods, where accessibility to fresh food is a very big issue. So what I think you need to focus on is that safety was respected or safety was not undermined for these products that are made available in local markets.

If not being “Product of Canada” means they're not grown in Canada, that doesn't mean that safety was undermined. So I think you need to focus on that specific issue, because more and more consumers are looking for products where the safety aspect of the product has been guaranteed.

It's always a challenge. You buy Canadian, but there's also that trend where people want a variety of food. So you need to ensure that for that variety of food that is not grown in Quebec, the safety aspect of it hasn't been undermined.

9:45 a.m.


Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Secondly, there was a point raised with regard to the difference between federal, provincial, and territorial standards for meat processing. I think that would really confuse a lot of people: how different could a federal standard be between any province in terms of meat inspection, if someone wanted to start an abattoir or some meat processing situation? We know in many regions of the country the centralization of meat processing has become a real issue of distance and getting product to someone to do that.

Maybe, Ms. Bliss, you can answer. What is the difference between a federally inspected product where a provincial person would say, “This is okay at this level, but federally we're going to inspect it a little bit more, and it's going to be safer, purer, cleaner”?

9:45 a.m.

Director, Local Food For Local People

Kim Jo Bliss

Thanks, Ken.

That's exactly what we're going through right now. As you know, we're trying to build an abattoir here in Rainy River. We are planning to build the building to federal specs, but financially we're unable to get a federally inspected plant here at this point. In order for us to access markets in Manitoba, which is three hours from us, we need to have a federal plant, but we're unable to do that.

The regulations are different, but it's a very unlevel and unfair playing field, because we need to be able to access the Manitoba markets, as well as Ontario. If we had one national standard of regulation so that we could do some interprovincial trade, it would only make sense, and the markets would be that much wider.

We're hoping that is one thing that can change. We can't compete with the Cargills, so we need to have some national regulations that will allow us to deal with the interprovincial trade barriers we have right now. It's very frustrating. If you look at a steak, whether it was federally inspected or provincially inspected, there are no differences.

9:50 a.m.


Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Maybe we could do a quick survey of all the panellists to find out their preference for labelling: “Grown in Canada”, “Made in Canada”, or “Product of Canada”. What would you vote for, in terms of consumer understanding, awareness, and security?

9:50 a.m.

Research Director, Consumer Interest Alliance Inc.

Jennifer Hillard

As long as it means what it says, I don't think consumers would differentiate between the three terms. The issue is whether it is exactly what it says it is, and “Product of Canada” right now is usually not what a consumer believes to be a product of Canada.

I agree with the harmonization of the standards and the levels all across the country, but I would hope that we would harmonize up to the federal standard so that everything's at the highest possible level. That really wouldn't help the people in Rainy River, because they'd still have to come up to meet the federal standard for meat inspection.

9:50 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Mr. Arnold, go ahead.

9:50 a.m.

Executive Director, Option consommateurs

Michel Arnold

Actually I pretty much agree with Ms. Hillard. I think that it is important for the terms to be clearly defined and for information to be given to consumers. Regardless of the term used, whether it’s “Made in Canada” or “Product of Canada,” consumers must know precisely what the term means.

9:50 a.m.

Lawyer, Agri-Food Analyst, Option consommateurs

Nalini Vaddapalli

I think we need to be reminded that for the Canadian consumer, the word “Canada” still has a lot of meaning to it in the matter of safety issues. Consumers look for that as a safe product.

As my colleague said, it doesn't really matter if it's a grown product or made in Canada, it's just that more and more consumers are looking for that as a safe purchase, so it has to reflect that. It's really very important.

9:50 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Ms. Bliss, you have a comment?

9:50 a.m.

Director, Local Food For Local People

Kim Jo Bliss

I agree. What I'm trying to say is we just need one. If it's the federal level of inspection that we need, that's the level we'll take. We just need one level of inspection and not have two that we have to jump through hoops to meet.

9:50 a.m.

Communications Officer, Union des consommateurs

Charles Tanguay

I am in agreement with the ideas defended by Ms. Hillard. Indeed considerations of the costs of processing the product or packaging should not be taken into account. Emphasis should be rather on what the food consists of, the raw material. I think that we must not limit ourselves to the labelling of Canadian products. Internationally, we also have to ensure that stricter rules are adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission so that, around the world, there are equally strict rules on the origin of products.

We also want to know whether the product comes from Chile, China or Australia. All this would make it possible to have more equitable rules for all countries and producers. Regardless of the term chosen, the information has to be accurate.

9:50 a.m.


The Chair Conservative James Bezan

Thank you.

Monsieur Bellavance, sept minutes.

9:50 a.m.


André Bellavance Bloc Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Thank you very much.

Thank you for your testimonies. I feel it is essential to hear the point of view of consumers’ associations in such a file.

Obviously the primary concern of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food is to ensure that agricultural producers enjoy an economic advantage in producing food. To my mind, this economic advantage is directly linked to the fact that consumers will like the idea of being able to buy a home-grown product and, when I say home-grown, I am speaking very broadly. In other words, our producers must be allowed to make a profit from their products.

I heard the results of the survey. Is it still available on your Web site, Mr. Tanguay? It is interesting; I would like to see it. At first, I was surprised when you said that 71% of people find it easy to determine the origin of products. At the same time, they find that there are misleading aspects and they have difficulty understanding labels. In the end, after thinking it over, I say to myself that these people are just like me. With these misleading aspects and loose regulation, if you will pardon the expression, it is very easy; “Canada” appears somewhere all the time. There is always a way of getting it in there.

Are consumers being misled deliberately? I do not know, but the label is designed in such a way that consumers can easily be mistaken. Often, even the address of the importer in Longueuil or in London, Ontario, appears, for example. When we see the company’s address, we think that this is a Canadian product, but actually the food product is not Canadian.

So I am not so surprised by these statistics. They show there is a real problem in this regard.

I would like to find this out from you, and here I am addressing all of you. Often, when standards are set or imposed, companies are quick to say this will cost more. Do you fear that the imposition of a standard that lays down how labels must be designed, for example, the obligation that a logo or whatever should appear, might have repercussions on the price consumers have to pay?

9:55 a.m.

Communications Officer, Union des consommateurs

Charles Tanguay

I think that many Canadians are prepared to pay a little more. I do not think it costs that much more to write more accurate and more truthful information. The truth does not cost much more than a lie. If it is, consumers are prepared to pay a little more, just as they are prepared to pay more for organic food.