02/13/2013 07:58 EST | Updated 04/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Food processing deregulation, job loss on hold, say mayors

A group of Southern Ontario mayors feel they have managed to convince the Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz there will be terrible consequences if food packaging sizes are deregulated.

The mayors met with Ritz late Tuesday in Ottawa. They've been asked to participate in a task force studying the industry.

Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara said there's a lot of misinformation about the food processing industry which led to the proposed deregulation.

"This is an opportunity for us now to do our homework, to bring our stakeholders in. Now we've got some time," McNamara said.

One suggestion already made to Ottawa is that it start an innovation fund for the food processing industry, just like the one for the auto sector.

The mayors, whose towns have thousands employed in the industry, and food processors fear massive job loss if U.S. companies can begin importing food in deregulated packaging.

Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos said it's their understanding any deregulation talk is on hold until the task force completes its work.

"We've made gains in identifying that the deregulation on its own can't move forward without the continued consultation, without the continued dialogue with our stakeholders," he said.

"I came away from this meeting feeling better than I did when I went in," Leamington Mayor John Paterson said.

The minister said his government's goal is to grow the country's food processing sector.

This may lead to research opportunities for the University of Windsor, the mayors said.

Ritz was unavailable for comment but his office issued a brief statement.

"The meeting was a productive, open dialogue," his press secretary Jeffrey English wrote in an email. "As he has previously stated, the minister will continue to speak directly with industry and other involved parties as this process moves forward."

The ministry said that while package sizes “do not affect food safety in any way," the regulations fall under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Streamlined sizes will free up inspectors to focus on allergy labelling and food inspection elsewhere the ministry said.

In January, Ritz was in Essex County to meet with officials in the food processing industry.

At that time, Ritz said a "number of players" in the food processing industry have pushed for the de-regulation of food packages. He stressed that no food processing companies from the United States lobbied for the proposed changes.

Ritz said in January the next steps in this process will take place over the next several months.

"That gives every industry in Canada a [chance] to put forward their best arguments for and against," Ritz said last month. "As government we assess all of that, come back to industry as to what goes forward."