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A worker re-stocks products in the meat section at an Atlantic Superstore grocery in Halifax on Jan. 28.Kelly Clark/The Canadian Press

Health organizations are calling on Ottawa to move forward with its proposed food warning labels, expressing concerns that further debate over ground meat could delay a critical program that’s already long overdue.

Since 2016, Health Canada has been promising to put in place a program that would require packaged foods high in sugar, salt or saturated fat to display a warning label. The government is scheduled to publish its plan in the coming weeks.

But as that timeline approaches, concerns from the meat industry that some ground meat would require a “high-in-saturated-fats” label have gained momentum. Over the past week, representatives from the meat industry, the Alberta provincial government and federal Conservative MPs have publicly called for an exemption for ground meat – and urged Ottawa to put a pause on the process altogether.

But according to health groups – including those who support a ground-meat exemption – any delay would be a mistake.

Ranchers push back against Health Canada’s proposed warning label for ground beef

“It’s been seven years of discussion,” said Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

He’s been involved throughout the process with Health Canada – sitting through the many meetings and consultations with the food industry; watching as the government promised the labelling program across two election campaigns, and four health minister mandate letters.

“The amount of discussions and consultations that have taken place on this issue is almost unparalleled,” he said. “So we’re very wary of people calling for more time for consultations and discussions, because that is a delay tactic.”

A spokesperson for Diabetes Canada also urged a “quick, coming-into-force” for the program.

“We encourage the federal government to consider exemptions where the evidence supports them,” said Ann Besner, a senior manager with Diabetes Canada, “but not to be delayed in implementing this critical set of regulations that will help move the needle on disease risk in this country.”

Ms. Besner said the labels will not only help consumers make better choices, but also push food manufacturers to reformulate their products into healthier ones.

In a statement, Health Canada did not specifically respond to concerns about potential delays. Instead, the department emphasized that the program is “widely recognized by health organizations as an effective tool to help counteract rising rates of diet-related chronic disease in Canada.”

The statement also emphasized that exemptions are only provided under specific circumstances.

Currently, about a quarter of Canadian adults are categorized as obese. And the cost of diet-related disease to our health-care system is $26-billion each year. It’s also to blame for 36,000 deaths annually.

The government’s labelling proposal, first introduced in 2016, was designed to help address this health crisis. The current “nutrition facts” table on food products has long been criticized as poorly designed, inconsistent and confusing.

The new labels would be required for any foods high in sugar, salt or saturated fat – any prepackaged food product with more than 15 per cent of the daily recommended intake.

In Chile, where similar labels are already in use, the program has led to a 25-per-cent decrease in purchases of sugary drinks. About 37 per cent of Chileans say the labels have helped them make better food choices.

Still, since the announcement of the proposal in Canada, government officials have found themselves heavily lobbied by the food industry.

Already, the government has said that it intends to allow exemptions for many products, including some dairy and whole meat – specifically, raw, single-ingredient meat. But ground meat, which is considered “minimally processed,” was not included in the exemptions.

A spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada said the organization does not have a position on ground meat. But Erin MacGregor, a registered dietitian, said that an exemption would make sense – that to put a warning label on ground meat would be an “oversimplification.”

“Ground meats are a nutrient-dense choice, with strict labelling requirements already in place when it comes to fat content,” she said – referring to the existing “medium,” “lean” and “extra-lean” labels.

“If part of the mandate for front-of-package labelling is to help Canadians curb their reliance on ultra-processed food, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to warn consumers about foods that will help do just that,” she said.

In both Chile and Mexico (which also has a similar labelling program), ground meat is exempt.

Mr. Arango, from Heart and Stroke Foundation, echoed Ms. MacGregor’s sentiments.

“It’s not the whole, minimally processed – what I would call ‘real food,’ ” that’s the problem, said Mr. Arango. “It’s the ultra-processed foods.”

To that end, he said, it’s imperative to put the labels in place without delay.

“We need to get this finalized, because people need to be informed about what is in their food. It’s [currently] very difficult for a lot of people – people with low literacy levels, poor eyesight, seniors, newcomers,” he said.

“What’s at stake is the health of Canadians.”

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