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Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 17, 2019 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Health experts are denouncing Andrew Scheer’s comments on Canada’s Food Guide as “irresponsible” and “disingenuous,” accusing the Conservative Party Leader of ignoring scientific evidence in an attempt to win favour from the dairy industry.

At a meeting with the Dairy Farmers of Canada earlier this week, Mr. Scheer criticized the new Canada’s Food Guide, and pledged that, if elected, he would review recent changes including the reduced emphasis on meat and dairy.

“[The guide] seems to be ideologically driven by people who have a philosophical perspective and a bias against certain types of healthy food products,” he told the group of farmers and producers in Saskatoon. His comments echo the dairy lobby’s arguments, including a statement this week that the new guide “does not fully reflect the most recent and mounting scientific evidence.”

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Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor responded immediately to Mr. Scheer on Wednesday, accusing him of “spreading lies.”

And by Thursday, some of Canada’s leading experts on nutrition and health policy – many of whom had helped shape the new guide – also condemned Mr. Scheer’s remarks.

“It’s irresponsible of him,” said Mary L’Abbé, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Nutrition Policy for Chronic Disease Prevention.

“This was done based on the huge body of evidence that’s clearly well-documented,” said Dr. L’Abbé, who is also a professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Toronto. “What does he want it based on? Not evidence? Lobbying?”

The new Canada’s Food Guide, released in January, represented the first major changes to the influential document since 2007. Since the 1970s, Canada’s food guides had been organized around four food groups, with one of those groups focused on dairy. As a result, Canadians for decades have been told to consume milk and milk products (or dairy alternatives) every day.

The new guide eschews food groups in favour of looser guidelines, such as “have plenty of vegetables and fruits." Dairy products such as yogurt and plain milk are still included as components of a healthy diet, but gone is the explicit advice to consume a specific portion of them.

Another change was Health Canada’s refusal to meet privately with food industry groups during the development process. This was in response to criticisms that previous guides included too much input from the food industry.

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On Wednesday, Mr. Scheer echoed the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s complaint of being “shut out” of the process. “The process was flawed – complete lack of consultation,” Mr. Scheer said.

Health Canada conducted nearly two years of consultations leading up to the guide. Although private meetings with lobbyists were banned, the food industry was invited to attend stakeholder round tables, and to participate in public consultations.

But the comment from Mr. Scheer that raised the most eyebrows was his claim that “chocolate milk saved my son’s life.” He explained that his son was a picky eater at a young age and refused to consume most other foods.

“The idea that these types of products we’ve been drinking and eating as human beings for millennia, that now, all of a sudden, they’re unhealthy? It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Dr. L’Abbé called Mr. Scheer’s comment about chocolate milk “disingenuous.” One 500 mL container of chocolate milk contains 50 grams of sugar. Of that, she said 28 grams is added sugar – nearly as much sugar as a Mars bar.

Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, described the chocolate milk comment as “terrifying."

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“It really is a disconcerting thing to see these comments made by a potential future prime minister of Canada, on a national stage,” he said.

When asked to respond to the criticisms of his comments, Mr. Scheer’s office said Canadians know that meat and dairy products are an important part of a balanced diet. Spokesperson Simon Jefferies questioned why the government, if confident in its science, refused to meet with farmers and hear their concerns and evidence.

“This is yet another example of the Trudeau Government’s assault on Canada’s farmers who work hard every single day to put food on our tables,” he said.

In addition to his pledge to review the food guide, Mr. Scheer promised to scrap the Liberal plan to make front-of-package labels mandatory for foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

In his statement, Dairy Farmers of Canada president Pierre Lampron said that milk is an important source of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. "[Mr. Scheer’s] comments reflected concerns that many nutritious dairy products would inadvertently be mischaracterized as ‘unhealthy’ ... in spite of their many nutritional and health benefits.”

With a report from Rachel Emmanuel in Ottawa

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