Earlier this year, Health Canada issued a much-anticipated draft revision to Canada's food guide. In line with global trends, it suggested eliminating the outdated food category and serving size/number format. Instead, broad, easy-to-follow, culturally inclusive principles would guide healthy eating patterns to promote health and reduce the risk of nutrition-related chronic disease.
Animal food industries were concerned by clear language recommending: a reduction in foods high in saturated fat, which essentially translates to a reduction in animal foods; a specific emphasis on plant-based sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, and tofu; eating principles set to replace food categories, which would mean dairy would no longer have special prominence in its own "milk and alternatives" group.
But the concerns of the animal food industries were not directly heard by Health Canada in lobbying meetings. For the first time, to protect the integrity of the evidence-based process and maintain public trust, Health Canada committed to not meeting privately with industry. Instead, food industry representatives were invited to join the public in submitting their comments through the regular consultation process. The comments are to be aggregated and trends identified by a third party research company, thus anonymizing and democratizing the public comment process — much like the blind grading process used in law schools.
Not one to go down without a fight, the cunning food industry found other avenues to get its concerns in front of government and circumvent the process. A few months ago, The Globe and Mailreported that the federal department responsible for promoting agriculture had been secretly lobbying Health Canada on industry's behalf. Confidential memos received through freedom of information legislation showed that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada had written to Health Canada, expressing concern that prominent recommendations to eat more plant-based sources of protein would have "negative implications for the meat and dairy industries."
Now, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has entered the discussion. This week, the agriculture committee issued a recommendation to the House of Commons that, in relation to the food guide, "the Government work with the agriculture and agri-food sector to ensure alignment and competitiveness for domestic industries." Translation: the healthy eating guidelines should factor in the economic interests of the animal food industries.
Although moving away from animal foods will have short-term economic consequences for these industries, it will be better for the Canadian economy overall.
This recommendation arose out of concerns from witnesses — including representatives from the Canadian Meat Council, the Dairy Farmers of Canada, Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Chicken Farmers of Canada and Egg Farmers of Canada — that a revised food guide would reduce consumption of their products. It's out of place from a committee whose role is to examine agricultural, not health, issues, and which has ostensibly been holding committee meetings and receiving witnesses to speak to the creation of a food production policy.
Although moving away from animal foods will have short-term economic consequences for these industries, it will be better for the Canadian economy overall. Researchers from McGill University found that if Canadians ate less meat, and more fruits and vegetables, Canada's GDP would benefit. The authors recommended the government subsidize fruits and vegetables, and tax meat, in an effort to reduce chronic disease.
It's not just GDP but healthcare costs that are implicated by Canadians' unhealthy diets. Lifestyle diseases — including cancer, obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes — cost the Canadian economy tens of billions of dollars annually. These lifestyle diseases can often be prevented and managed through healthy, plant-based eating.
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Canada's original food guide was created at a time when only 3 per cent of families were getting adequate calories, and only 7 per cent were getting enough protein. Today, Canadians are over-consuming both calories and protein; 62 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women are overweight or obese. Our food guide is in dire need of an overhaul.
Justin Trudeau's government promised to use sound data to make evidence-based decisions. Health Canada has conducted a thorough, transparent review of current health and health policy research and made eating recommendations for Canadians based on that evidence, without influence from industry. Focus group testing shows Canadians are responding well to the new healthy eating guidelines. The actions of the agriculture department and committee threaten to undermine this progress.
Canadians need and deserve a modern food guide that clearly represents the science, so that we all understand how to eat well and avoid chronic disease. The short-term profit interests of select food industries should not be permitted to compromise our health.
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