The farm community is up in arms about food labelling.
Farmers think they're missing a grand opportunity to capitalize on consumers' interests in local food, however you define it, because they're bound by archaic labelling regulations that let almost anything with a sniff of Canadian content be called a Product of Canada.
And they're right.
Better Farming, one of the leading farm magazines in Ontario, tackles the issue with a cover story this month called "Frustration Over Food Labelling."
It notes that even orange juice bottled in Canada can be labelled Product of Canada.
So can meat that was raised as livestock in a foreign country, but packaged here.
Gord Surgeoner, president of Guelph-based Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, is fond of — and disgusted with — telling the story of buying bottled apple juice bearing the Product of Canada label from a fast-food outlet, knowing full well the juice was made from apple juice concentrate from China.
That's not only ridiculous, it's insulting to Canadian farmers, who can't get labelling such as Grown In Ontario approved.
Consider the other kinds of regulations farmers have to live with, such as federal reviews of pest-control products by the roundly despised Pest Management Regulatory Agency. This group moves at a snail's pace approving pest-control products for use by farmers here, making sure the science behind them is water tight and that they've exceeded even the most cautious risk estimates.
There's certainly merit to due diligence.
But if extreme care is supposed to be Canada's mantra, how can we allow Canadian companies to package Chinese apple juice concentrate and sell it as a Product of Canada? What else is going on?
I'm not a farmer, but I have a stake in all this, and so does anyone who promotes Canada to others.
In three years, I'm co-hosting an international congress of around 300 or so of the world's top agricultural journalists, in Guelph and Niagara Falls (for details, check http://www.agrifoodprojects.ca/2008/02/11/ifaj-2011-wants-you/). How can I ply these guests with Chinese apple juice concentrate? I have no intention of offering them anything other than 100 per cent Canadian food, and I can't understand how the federal government would see it any other way.
My colleague and co-host, Lilian Schaer and I were fortunate to tour the proposed congress hotel last week, the new Delta conference centre adjacent to the University of Guelph, along with a gaggle of other wide-eyed wannabe facility users who were likewise marvelling at the establishment's impressive quarters.
As Canadian agricultural communicators and journalists, we were thrilled to hear the conference centre, which opens for business next week, is planning a local food menu.
By the time 2011 rolls around, the menu will be firmly in place, suppliers will be well defined, some of the questions about the local food supply will be ironed out, and we can feel confident our international guests are getting the best of Canadian cuisine.
We shouldn't have to shelter guests from our own food quality system. They might wander down the street to the grocery store, as agriculture and food journalists often do, to check out the local fare.
Or they might take a run up to St. Jacobs or Elmira or Elora, if we don't take them first.
When they do, the apple juice — or anything, for that matter, including wine and spirits — labelled Product of Canada (or in the case of wine, Cellared In Canada), shouldn't be misleading. There should be no need to put an asterisk beside anything identifying it as a phoney.
Farmers want the truth. They believe consumers would support products labelled Grown In Ontario, or Grown in Canada. I think they're right.
Critics charge it would be hard to implement such a system and prove that indeed local products are what they claim to be.
True, it would be more complicated than it is now.
But other countries do it. In Japan and Britain, some packages of locally grown farm produce bear photos of the farmers who grew it, and give details about their farm.
We should be focusing on important matters such as labelling, and creating harmony in the Canadian food system. Instead, agriculture has become a battlefield between Ottawa and farmers, particularly in Western Canada where a war is waging over the Canadian Wheat Board.
Ontario farmers have had enough. Last week, in frustration, the Guelph-based Ontario Federation of Agriculture drew its line in the sand, with president Geri Kamenz promising all of Ontario agriculture is turning its focus on the federal government.
The province has acted responsibly and the relationship between it and farmers is smooth.
But when it comes to Ottawa, just think Chinese apple juice concentrate.