Opinion: The privilege of many problems

Availability, authenticity and accountability are the hallmarks of a trusted food supply

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“A person with empty stomach has one problem, but a person with full stomach has many.”

Most Canadians are not used to worrying about access to food. Despite a few short-term impacts resulting from adjustments in the supply chains, even COVID-19 left the shelves stocked.

According to recently released research by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), “the food system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highly praised by Canadians; nearly nine in 10 (87 per cent) trust that the food system will ensure the availability of healthy food for Canadians.”

Consumers trust us, which is good news for now, but what is ahead? What will trust involve?

A trusted food supply involves three factors: availability, authenticity, and accountability.

Availability comes to the fore during pandemic

Before COVID, most would not have had “available” in this list as we simply took that for granted. Consumers have had a wakeup call on that front. Although the industry passed the test by and large, there are issues that must be dealt with.

These include labour, working conditions to ensure good human health, automation, the fragility that comes with concentrated processing (the benefit of which is efficiency), and a greater nimbleness to adjust to conditions (like packaging for eggs when pulp mills closed).

Authenticity tied to food fraud perceptions

Authenticity means the buyer gets what they are paying for. In the CCFI report, 51 per cent of respondents indicated that food fraud is a high or medium priority for them. While this is significant, it ranks twelfth in a list of possible issues. Industry has a window of opportunity, while this issue is of relatively low priority to consumers, to address to clear areas of concern.

Food fraud is real, as documented by Dr. Robert Hanner with the University of Guelph. He has seen honey diluted with corn syrup, peppercorns swapped with papaya seeds and he notes that “…there’s four times more Italian extra-virgin olive oil sold in international markets than what’s actually produced in Italy.”

A Canadian study in 2017 found concerning levels of meat products in sausages that should not have been there (for example chicken in a beef sausage). This study led to enforcement actions by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and testing in 2019 indicated that the incidence of misrepresentation in sausage meat ingredients is down.

A further concern regarding food authenticity is the stability of value-added products. I know a meat processor that built such products, only to see his market eroded when his client found someone that “does the same,” but not really, at a lower price. Industry progress is stalled when the reward for innovation is simply to have it “stolen” via food fraud.

Accountability most impacts farmers

Accountability takes the issue of a trusted food supply right down to the farm. To many farmers, the actions that need to be taken to ensure accountability seem to have no reward. The common refrain is “pay me to do it,” but the real payoff is simply keeping your market to sell into.

The definition of accountability changes over time and is quite different in sectors of agriculture. On-farm programs vary from voluntary to mandatory and from relatively limited to quite comprehensive.

For example, the proAction program in the dairy sector has multiple components that have been phased in over a number of years. The overall goal is for “Canadian dairy farmers to demonstrate responsible stewardship of their animals and the environment, sustainably producing high-quality, safe and nutritious food for consumers.”

Implementing such a program is harder in the non-supply managed sectors but there has been growing recognition of the need in all sectors.

Of the three “A’s”, accountability is the one that goes beyond the consumer. Everyone in society has a voice when it comes to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the use of our tax dollars. Having support for research, innovation and business risk management programs is dependent upon a societal support.

The farming sector must keep the trust of society as if its future depends on it… because it does.

Mike McMorris is Chief Executive Officer of the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation and has more than 30 years’ experience in the livestock sector working for government, producers, and industry organizations. Follow LRIC on Twitter @LivestockInnov.

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