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The food sector must act responsibly as next phase looms

It’s unclear as to whether the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived, but looking around this week, it sure appears close.

The number of people in Ontario being infected by the virus has climbed alarmingly. Premier Doug Ford is pleading with us to stay diligent, even though many regard reopening schools as being akin to throwing another log on the fire.

Meanwhile, hopes for a vaccine were dampened Tuesday when a leading coronavirus trial involving Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was put on hold after one of the human participants developed a suspicious illness.

Maybe the writing’s on the wall.

The food industry will be better prepared for the next phase. It responded admirably and gallantly when the pandemic arrived, thanks to a well-established food supply infrastructure and the diligence of all those involved in making sure we had enough to eat. Shortages of staples at grocery stores, driven by panic buying and changes in our food purchasing sources – mainly, retails vs. restaurants – were quickly addressed.

As the next phase looms, expect to see consumers load up their shopping carts again. That’s especially likely when you consider round two will probably coincide with the fall harvest and all the good things that emanate from field and gardens everywhere.

Such home-grown fare is associated with good health. But for many people, the first round of the pandemic presented additional health challenges. It hit when we were seasonally sedentary, and in many cases it served as a license to consume food like there was no tomorrow. 

Well, it turns out there was a tomorrow, and we’re living now.

To a great degree, our personal health is in our hands. True, it depends on factors such as genetics and good luck, too. But just like we take protective measures to stave off the COVID-19 virus, so too can we plan towards a healthy diet when our options are restricted again.

Right now, and heading into the fall, we have abundant seasonal options, right on our doorstep. We have some of the best farmers’ markets in the country. And the abundance of food at our grocery stores is truly amazing. We are blessed beyond belief.

But not all food choices are healthy, particularly processed foods. The abundance of products loaded with sugar, salt and fat, work counter to our efforts to otherwise eat well and head off illness.

The problem is they often taste great. And of course, the food industry will give us what we want, or lead us somewhere it thinks we want to go. Consider the move toward plant-based diets, or so-called clean food grow in laboratory-like settings that have minimal contact or connectivity with animals or humans, or food produced without modern means such as biotechnology.

Elsewhere, governments have stepped in the ensure the food industry being as responsible as possible.

For example, convinced too much salt in processed meat was wreaking havoc on its citizens, the UK government set salt reduction targets in 2017. But the industry there responded poorly and little progress has been made.

Most lately, the UK government has backtracked on calorie reduction targets. It wanted manufacturers to cut calories by 20 per cent. The industry basically said no, and the government came back with 10 per cent. Even that, says industry, is a monumental challenge.

Of course it is. But when its citizens get sick from diet-related illness, it’s governments who carry the weight of health costs, not industry.  

The answer is a concerted effort involving government and industry, along with consumers who understand the consequences of poor food choices.

Is that where we stand as we enter the next phase of the pandemic?

Unfortunately not. We have tools like Canada’s food guide to help aid us. But ultimately, we need to help ourselves.

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