Health Canada’s proposed warning labels on foods like ground beef are necessary — and only the first step

Health Canada has proposed introducing mandatory nutrition labeling that will warn Canadians of foods that are high in saturated fat, like ground beef. Different from our current nutrition labels, these labels would have to appear on the front of food packaging, and have the specific goal of offsetting rising rates of diet-related diseases.

While some cattle ranchers and beef proponents have taken issue with the proposed regulation, claiming their products are being unfairly targeted, we at Nation Rising think it is a good first step. In fact, we think the federal government should be doing even more.

Helping Canadians make more informed choices about what to eat — and better understand how those choices impact our health and the health of the world around us — can only be a good thing. Having more knowledge would also help us follow Health Canada’s own Food Guide, as well as climate-focused recommendations, both of which suggest limiting animal proteins and increasing consumption of plant-based sources.

But food labeling is only one step toward the goal of helping Canadians make better food choices. The next is making plant proteins and alternatives — which are naturally lower in saturated fats and less impactful on the environment — more affordable. A recent study by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab found that plant-based meat alternatives cost on average 38 per cent more than their animal counterparts in Canada. While the study did not typically include lower-priced whole-food plant proteins such as tofu, lentils and beans, the findings are still concerning.

Plant-based meat alternatives are often considered an easy and accessible way for more Canadians to incorporate lower saturated fat plant-proteins into their diets. A plant-based Beyond Meat burger, for example, has reportedly 45 per cent less saturated fat compared to ground beef.

But economic context is key in understanding why animal-based meats remain more affordable than their plant-based alternatives. Multibillion dollar government subsidies provided to animal agriculture are helping to drive the cost of animal-based meats down — and drive consumption up.

In 2021 alone, the Canadian government committed well over $1.7 billion in subsidies to animal agriculture, to produce many of the foods that Health Canada says we should be eating far less of.

Historically, powerful animal agriculture lobby groups have always pushed back against any change that hurts their bottom line, so it’s unsurprising to see the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association take issue with Health Canada’s proposed warning labels.

But change is necessary, not only for the health of Canadians, but also to wart the climate crisis, prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks, and improve animal welfare. We at Nation Rising — a non-partisan political advocacy group lobbying the Canadian government to shift detrimental subsidies away from animal agriculture and toward plant-based foods — are fighting for that change.

We believe that labeling foods is necessary, but it is only the first step. The government needs to do more to help protect Canadians and to protect the world around us. It needs to put its money where its mouth is.

Jenny Henry is the co-founder of Nation Rising.

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