As It Happens·Q & A

Ground beef shouldn't come with a warning label, say Canadian ranchers

Beef producers say that new food labels proposed by Health Canada, which would warn consumers about foods high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat, don't belong on packages of ground beef.

Industry groups object to lumping in ground beef and pork with other processed food

A customer browses beef and other meat selections at a Colemans grocery store in St. John's.
A customer browses beef and other meat selections at a Colemans grocery store in St. John's. (Paul Daly/CBC)

Story Transcript

Beef producers say that new food labels proposed by Health Canada don't belong on packages of ground beef.

Health Canada is proposing to introduce mandatory front-of-package nutrition labelling for foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat, with the goal of encouraging people to quickly and easily make healthier choices.

Ryder Lee, a rancher and the CEO of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association, said that beef shouldn't be lumped in processed junk food and that Health Canada's rules could hurt his bottom line.

"Any time you introduce uncertainty in the supermarket, that's not helpful," he said in an interview with As It Happens guest host Catherine Cullen.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Ryder, what's your beef with these warning labels?

It's really a warning against home cooking, and we don't think that's what Health Canada was trying to achieve here. But they're singling out ground beef, and that's not good for us.

We know that there are some exemptions in this plan for whole foods, [such as] unsweetened fruit — which is naturally high in sugar — dairy and eggs, which do of course contain saturated fat. But ground beef and ground pork are not exempt. Has anyone in Ottawa explained the logic of that to you?

No, that's really what's missing is some consistency. Both, you know, domestically with other whole foods, like you mentioned, and then internationally. Other countries that have [used] front-of-pack labelling like this have exempted ground beef. So we don't understand why the departure on either front.

At the same time, it is true that regular ground beef has a high level of saturated fat. So the label will be correct, will it not?

Well, correct in the raw product. But you know, what we cook and what we consume is generally different, you know, whether you've drained your fat or skim it off if you had it in the slow cooker. That's another inconsistency there, too.

But I suppose the government can't predict ... whether or not they're going to be skimming off the fat, right? They can only really speak to the product itself.

I guess, yeah, there's as-consumed and what's in the store. But again, you're going to the consistency piece of some of these other things that are high in the products that they're warning about and they're getting an exemption. So the consistency isn't there and these are components of home cooking, wholesome meals.

The fundamental objective, as I understand it, though, is for people to make informed choices, right? Health Canada is saying that Canadians need to reduce the amount of sugar, sodium, saturated fats in their diets because they're risk factors for obesity, hypertension, chronic diseases. What's wrong with that?

Well, we've also got problems in our population with iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, getting enough protein and getting good nutrients with the calories we consume. And what beef delivers on an affordable, simple basis, that nutrient-dense calorie load, is what we need more of.

Some of the health problems we're seeing aren't corresponding with people eating more meat. They're corresponding with people eating more junk food and more highly processed foods. So if we're looking to combat some of the problems we're facing, it's not because people are eating more beef. So I'd say they're missing the mark there.

Portrait of man in a dark suit with a cattle pin on his lapel.
Rancher Ryder Lee is the CEO of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association. He says that proposed Health Canada food labels that state if a food is high in saturated fat, sugar or sodium, would hurt beef producers. (Submitted by Ryder Lee)

You are a rancher yourself. What do you imagine might be the impact on your family's operation?

We're already in a hard time right now with the weather we've had over the last five years and the cost of everything going up faster, really fast, and the revenue side being flat over a lot of years.

So we're already stressed to be able to make a go of it in the beef production business. Our government taking a swipe at our product this way and singling out this way is disappointing, and hopefully we can get them to change their mind.

Do you imagine, though, that this is going to potentially hurt business, or force prices to be driven up? What do you see as the ripple effect of this?

Yeah, I foresee it hurting business.

If it is something that casts doubt in your consumer's mind, it's something you work very hard on to build confidence and certainty in them, and when that gets eroded, that will impact your ability to sell to people. So we don't think the government should be doing that in this case ... especially when they're providing exemptions for lots of other products that are in the grocery store that are single-ingredient, natural product.

The provincial government in Saskatchewan sent a letter to the federal government asking for an exemption for ground beef and pork. The Alberta government has as well. What effect do you think that will have?

They're important voices, especially when it's the ministries of health. And hopefully they'll get due consideration.

Decision makers listen to voters, but they also listen to their colleagues as well and the advice they get. I'm glad to see that support from our government, from our opposition parties as well, calling for this exemption. So it's not just our group calling for this.

In a statement provided to As It Happens, a Health Canada spokesperson specified that "the FOP regulations will require a nutrition symbol only on foods high in sodium, sugars and/or saturated fat, regardless of whether the nutrient is added or naturally-occurring." 

There are some exceptions, according to Health Canada, but only in these specific circumstances:

  • when food is already exempt from displaying nutritional information, such as meat sold at a farmers' market.
  • if there is evidence the food provides a protective effect on health, such as whole milk, fruits and vegetables, and vegetable oils. 
  • the information would be redundant, such as a "high in sugar" label on maple syrup.

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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