Blackburn unveils action plan to boost Canadian foods

 

Blackburn unveils action plan to boost Canadian foods

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

OTTAWA — The Harper government has whipped up a food processing action plan to try to slip out of its promise to implement meaningful Product of Canada food labels.

Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of State for Agriculture, announced the action plan and said it will kick off with a campaign to encourage Canadians to buy more domestically produced food. Few other details of the program were released.

“Our government invests significant resources in promoting Canada’s agriculture and food sector, both internationally and domestically, as a reliable supplier of quality products,” he noted. “Initiatives like the Action Plan and in‑store promotions will help Canadian producers and processors improve their competitiveness in the domestic market, resulting in more profits for farmers.”

“In cooperation with the Canadian food processing industry, we have developed an action plan to improve the competitiveness and growth potential of this important sector,” Blackburnsaid in a statement.  

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture proposed several years ago that the existing Product of Canada labels being reformed to assure consumers they were buying foods that had Canadian content.

It was agreed by farm groups, the food industry and many politicians that 85% Canadian content was a reasonable qualification given the seasonal nature of food production in Canada. Prime Minister Harper squelched that when he announced two years ago that foods would have to be 98% Canadian to qualify.

That move killed most of the interest in Product of Canada label reform until the CFA has tried to keep the idea alive as have opposition parties in Parliament. Last year, Blackburn held meetings with food companies seeking a compromise. He had hoped to announce it before the end of the year and consumers still have a reliable way of telling what’s Canadian.

The food industry responded positively to Blackburn’s announcement. Ted Johnston, the President of the Alberta Food Processors Association and industry co-chair of the Food Processors Competitiveness Working Group, welcomed Ottawa’s recognition the importance of the food processing sector “and the need to address the challenges facing our sector. Many issues remain that will affect the long-term success of food processing in Canada, but we are positive that this important first step will continue to move the industry forward.”

Food and Consumer Products of Canada, which represents large food companies, said the minister’s plan “is a comprehensive, well-considered document that will spur the industry’s growth and the country’s continued economic renewal.

“We commend the government for taking leadership to ensure a future for one of the country’s most important sectors, and for having the vision to engage food industry sector representatives in developing the plan,” said Derek Nighbor, FCPC’s Senior Vice President, Public and Regulatory Affairs. The food industry is the largest employer in the manufacturing sector but “we could be bigger and better. It is our hope that the launch of today’s Action Plan will put the challenges facing our sector on the front burner of public policy priorities in Ottawa.”

The regulatory system has to be at least at par with other leading developed nations, he added. Manufacturers would be able to bring to market many so-called functional foods, which offer specific health benefits. Health Canada considers these products as drugs and controls them under federal pharmaceutical rules, which are slow and cumbersome.

Blackburnsaid the action plan was the result of meetings held with industry during the last two years “to identify the challenges facing the sector and find solutions to enable it to grow and strengthen its competitive capacity. It singled out economics, market access, innovation and the regulatory environment as priority areas.

The minister said he hopes to get solutions to them within the next 12 months. “The actions are wide ranging, including research studies, policy and program reviews, and the development of new initiatives to improve the competitiveness of the sector.

“Our government invests significant resources in promoting Canada’s agriculture and food sector, both internationally and domestically, as a reliable supplier of quality products,” he noted. “Initiatives like the Action Plan and in‑store promotions will help Canadian producers and processors improve their competitiveness in the domestic market, resulting in more profits for farmers.”