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There’s more to debate than rising prices

Food prices have gone up of late. They’re likely to continue to do so. We’re certainly going to gripe about it, but Canadians are much better off than much of the world when it comes to the affordability of food.

As Jeff Stager of the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture pointed out to Woolwich councillors this week, most of us pay out $7,000 a year on food, about 10 to 12 per cent of our incomes. That’s far lower than the international average.

Feb. 12 was Food Freedom Day in Canada, marking the date when the average Canadian family has earned enough income to cover the cost of food for the entire year.

By comparison, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, food consumption accounts for 45 per cent of household expenses in Indonesia, 39 per cent in China, and over 13 per cent in the United States. In Egypt, food inflation has risen above 20 per cent, with the price of common food items such as tomatoes surging as much as 300 per cent last year. The price for a kilogram of meat has risen to as much as one third of a monthly wage.

Looking to the year ahead, BMO Economics expects a moderate increase in food prices for Canadians.

“The agriculture sector should experience solid growth over the next two years,” says Kenrick Jordan, senior economist, BMO Capital Markets. “The prices of grains and oilseeds, which have soared lately, should remain fairly strong over the medium term as a result of low inventories, healthy demand from developing countries, and continuing expansion of the global biofuels industry. This should be a constructive environment for crop production.”

The local food movement hopes some of those strong gains come as consumers turn to local farmers to provide what is seen as fresher, safer and more wholesome food.

Safety plays an increasingly important role in food choices, particularly as it relates to imports from countries such as China – a hotspot in the quality-versus-price debate.

According to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the connection to China isn’t always obvious to the average consumer. Much of what’s what we buy is sold as “Product of Canada,” but is processed in China or contain ingredients from China.

Under Canadian law, the ingredients can come from anywhere in the world and still get a “Product of Canada” label. That’s because “Product of Canada” only means that at least 51 per cent of manufacturing costs were incurred in Canada. Apple juice concentrate from China, for instance, can be mixed here, packaged and declared Canadian made, and you and I are none the wiser.

In such cases, the product flies in the face of a growing desire to buy food as locally as possible. The practice also hides from consumers information that might lead them to choose another product because of safety concerns about goods from suspect parts of the globe. And when it comes to Chinese food products, we have every reason to be cautious, says James Morehouse, a senior partner with A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, who recently penned a report about food safety and the supply chain in China.

“The problem is that in China food safety standards are not consistent, enforcement is not very effective, and there is no real integrated distribution capability. For instance, there is no cold chain system of refrigerated trucks, warehouses and retail space that can guarantee cool temperatures for meats, vegetables, vaccines and similar products,” he reports.

Consumers are at risk both in China and in countries where Chinese food products end up, including Canada.

Beyond poor handling practices, the threat extends to environmental pollutants and the use of chemicals deemed unsafe here. Farmed fish, for instance, has been found to contain malachite green, used to prevent infections in crowded ponds. Canada has banned that practice, and seafood so treated can’t be sold here, yet there have been cases where such products have slipped by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

In fact, the CFIA, as with consumer agencies monitoring for such things as lead in toys, relies on the manufacturers and importers to follow the rules: they’re just aren’t enough inspectors to cover all of the goods shipped to Canada. In 2006, more than 368 million kilograms (812 million lbs) of food from China made its way to this country. The trend is upwards, as many companies opt for cheaper, even as Canadians say they’re concerned with quality and with buying local food from local farmers.

Ultimately, however, it’s we as consumers who are to blame for the situation – we’re voting with our dollars, and we’re getting what we pay for.

The solution involves watching what we eat. With fresh food, supermarkets usually indicate the country of origin. With prepared and mixed foods, the situation rapidly gets cloudy. The key there is to pressure government to force proper labelling requirements on the industry: only full disclosure of ingredients and their origins will allow consumers to make the right choice when it comes to protecting their health.

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