Dairy farmers nervous about changes to healthy eating advice

​OXFORD COUNTY — New federal nutrition guidelines and regulations will begin rolling out this year, with an eye to helping Canadians trim their growing waistlines. But with Health Canada consulting the public about stark warning labels that would alert consumers to high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt in processed foods — labels that could be slapped on milk-derived products including sweetened yogurt and chocolate milk — dairy farmers in southwestern Ontario worry the planned changes might slim down their business prospects, too. 

“We’re definitely concerned about eroding our market,” says Robert McKinlay, a dairy farmer near Woodstock, Ontario’s self-proclaimed dairy capital. The four counties surrounding the city are home to just under a third of the province’s 3,682 dairy producers, and they produce enough milk in a year to provide for more than 15 million people.

The federal department’s healthy eating strategy, which has been taking shape since work began on an update of the Canada Food Guide in 2013, would affect many areas of the dairy industry (as well as food producers in other sectors). The updated guide, to be released this year, will promote “balanced” meals, and will advise Canadians to avoid the excessive consumption of sugars, saturated fats and sodium. Critics say the plan appears to favour plant proteins over dairy and meat proteins, to the possible detriment of livestock farmers.

Farmers also worry about the potential scare factor of proposed new mandatory front-of-package labelling for foods that are high in sodium, saturated fats, and sugars. McKinlay likens the labels to warnings on hazardous chemicals.

There are four designs under consideration for the standardized labelling, all featuring a bold black-and-white appearance. They would alert consumers to foods and beverages that contain 15 per cent or more of an adult’s daily allowance of sugars, saturated fats and/or sodium. Health Canada says these nutrients are linked to chronic disease and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Chocolate milk, sweetened yogurt, some cheeses and ice cream would carry the label. Exemptions would apply to whole milk, vegetables, most raw meats, poultry, fish and eggs. (According to reports, the labels, which are under public consultation until April 26, have become a potential sticking point in NAFTA renegotiations with the United States. If they did go ahead, the labels would be announced later this year and would be expected to appear on packaging around 2022.)

new Health Canada food labelsThese warning labels could appear on food products that are high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. (Food Secure Canada)

McKinlay thinks the reforms will needlessly hurt his industry by confusing consumers and causing them to view ordinary dairy products as unhealthy. Case in point, he says, is the intent to identify some dairy products with the same cautionary label as junk food. “If you’ve got a bag of chips or [sweetened] yogurt, it seems pretty clear which one’s healthier.”

His position echoes that of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, an influential association representing 12,000 farms. Last month, president Pierre Lampron wrote: “We are concerned that this approach to labelling may come with the unintended consequence of deterring Canadians from seeking more information on the nutritional value of dairy products, at the expense of a balanced diet … Canadian dairy farmers will make their voices heard in this important debate.”

Samantha Gianotti, a dietician who provides advice to Western University students and staff, agrees about the label’s potential to confuse: “It’s really going to take a lot of public education [before consumers understand] that we’re not having people just completely shy away from cheese,” she says. Gianotti hopes Health Canada won’t categorize cheese and other fatty dairy products “the same as they would a potato chip or so on.”

The idea of using front-of-package labels to warn the public about nutritional profiles in foods comes from similar programs in Chile and Ecuador. According to a Health Canada report, when similar labels debuted in Chile two years ago, they influenced the purchases of 92 per cent of consumers surveyed and prompted a reformulation of 65 per cent of dairy products and 48 per cent of processed meat products.

Here in Canada, McKinlay predicts the changes to the government’s health advice will discourage consumption of dairy products whether they’re labelled or not. He also fears the new public nutrition guidelines will open the door to even more restrictive measures on products further down the line.

But what really gets his goat is the worry that by excluding industry from policy development, the federal department has also discounted studies funded by the food industry. He’s concerned it may be basing its recommendations on limited — and he suspects possibly cherry-picked — science.

Health Canada excluded industry stakeholders from the process of developing the nutritional guidelines for the new version of the food guide, marking what may well be the first time food processors and farmers hadn’t taken a seat at the table in its 76-year history. The federal government has published various versions of the Canada Food Guide since the Second World War, and it continues to be used by health professionals and institutions to make menus and policies and to educate people about nutrition.

If representatives of the dairy industry had been in on the discussions, they likely would have shared high-profile studies released in 2014 and 2015 that overturned the longstanding assumption that saturated fats cause heart disease or type 2 diabetes. The studies found little evidence to back those links; the research was taken as an argument for rehabilitating the image of high-fat dairy foods including cream and butter. “Health Canada claims they used a science-based approach but it appears that they might not be using a balanced approach to the science that’s available,” McKinlay says.

(More recent research raises some questions about the 2014 and 2015 study findings.)

Hasan Hutchinson, director general for the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion within Health Canada, says the government’s advice will be made on the basis of the best available research. “What we have devised is a very robust process,” which considers “high quality, peer-reviewed systematic reviews” and reports from leading scientific organizations and government agencies, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and World Cancer Research Fund International. “Each of these reports are looking at a whole whack of evidence and then grading the strength of that evidence. And so each report has hundreds of individual articles that have been taken into consideration for their conclusions.”

Bev Shipley, Conservative MP for Lambton-Middlesex, worries about the impact of those conclusions on the ground. “There seems to be a direct push to move away from livestock [and] animal proteins,” he says, in favour of legume and other plant-based proteins. “This starts to affect not only dairy but the livestock industry — all of it.”

Ontario’s supply-managed dairy farmers are especially vulnerable to the possibility of losing market share right now. They are anticipating the loss of 4.5 per cent of their domestic market to imports under new trade agreements with Europe and Pacific Rim countries. Ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement talks present the possibility of losing even more market share.

Even still, in some respects, business is looking up — mostly because of a large spike in consumption of products made with butterfat. Demand for cream in Ontario, for instance, grew by more than 30,000 kilolitres between 2006 and 2016 and Canadian per capita butter consumption jumped to 3.23 kilograms per year in 2017 from 2.72 kg in 2007.

Food Secure Canada, a national non-profit that represents the consumer food interests, says although it was the right call to exclude the industry from the effort to develop nutritional guidelines to protect the public interest, there is a need to better support farmers to orient themselves and adapt to a marketplace that may be affected by changing dietary guidance. The best place to address the issue, says spokesperson Jennifer Reynolds, is an inter-departmental effort being led by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to develop a national food policy. “We need a governance body [such as a national food policy council] that can continue this dialogue and conversation.”

But Hutchinson challenges the assertion that the dietary guidance reforms won’t be good for the food business. Dairy in the form of non-flavoured whole and skim milk is still on the list of recommendations, as are meat-based proteins, such as lean meats, lower-fat milks, and yogurts.

As for non-recommended products, Hutchinson suggests the food industry could shift away from producing them, or, if it wants to avoid warning labels, can consider reformulating recipes to contain less sodium, saturated fat or sugars. Finding new ways to reduce these nutrients in food products creates “incredible” opportunity for innovation, he says. “That creates economic opportunity as well.”

At specialized farms such as McKinlay’s, however, there’s not a lot of flexibility to make changes to respond to radically different market demands. Making the leap to growing plant-based protein, for example, isn’t realistic. His 70-milking cow dairy operation sits on 130 acres, hardly enough land to earn a viable living growing pulses, vegetables or grains. Moreover, buying farmland has become expensive in southern Ontario, and especially in Oxford County, where McKinlay farms. In 2017, median land values there surpassed $20,000 per acre.

Even if he were to find more land to farm, McKinlay would face other hurdles: for instance, what to do with expensive infrastructure whose sole purpose is to sustain and milk cows? He’s already paying off the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in improvements, such as a new barn, robotic milking and an energy-producing biodigester. Many of the improvements follow a mix of government and industry best practice recommendations to improve animal welfare, boost milk production and streamline operations.

“We sell milk,” McKinlay says. “That is the core of our business.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It’s brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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