When you were a kid, and a grown-up asked you a question, how did you answer? If the question was, "Did you spill this?" the answer was most likely, "Not me!" But let's pretend the question was innocuous, like when your birthday was. Most likely you were honest and straightforward.
As we get older, we start realizing there are some questions that aren't answered simply. The answers to many questions – especially about products we buy and use daily – require some context. This is an issue advertisers have tried to fight with simple statements. Unfortunately, these statements or labels don't necessarily speak to the whole answer. This is a quandary when it comes to meat.
I own a small butcher shop in downtown Toronto that specializes in quality meat from small Ontario farms. My customers ask all kinds of questions about our products – where the animal was raised, what it ate, had it been injected with antibiotics or given growth hormones? Was the animal on pasture? What breed was it and how does that make a difference?
We proudly advertise the name of the producers and try to be as transparent as possible. There have been times when, if the provenance of the meat is questionable, we refuse to sell it. It's not as if I want to straddle a horse so high my head gets stuck in the clouds – I just think it's my responsibility to be honest with the consumer.
I realize, of course, that not everyone buys his or her meat at a small independent butcher shop where they can ask these questions. Most Canadians shop at large grocery stores, where choosing meat can be a foggy business. In these cases, effective meat labelling would allow consumers to make the most informed decisions.
Lately there's been a kerfuffle in the United States about labelling the country of origin on steaks and other packaged meats. Last month, the House of Representatives agriculture committee took steps to repeal a country-of-origin labelling law for meat and, honestly, I support them, if only because a "country of origin" label doesn't really answer enough questions. The consumer should know if the animal was raised on pasture or in a barn. How long was the animal on a grain diet? Was that grain GMO free? Does that even matter scientifically? The question then becomes: How do we get all this information on a label so consumers know what they are putting into their bodies?
I find it ridiculous that if you Google "Canadian meat laws" or "how is meat raised in Canada," you're directed either to a lobby group's info-tisement or the Meat Inspection Act on the Government of Canada's website, which is only helpful if you have a law degree and understand how to read an act. I find it hilariously backward that getting answers about eating food – something we must do daily to survive – is as difficult as writing an essay with the hand we're not used to.
It's imperative for food packaging to give as much clear information as possible. It's time the Canadian government initiated a colour-coded grading system for meat. Each colour would indicate how the meat was raised, with simple labels on the package indicating "organic," "100-per-cent grass fed," "raised in Ontario," etc. Background information (such as how "organic" is defined) could be easily found on a website called, oh, I don't know – how about www.canadianmeatfacts.gc.ca? (You're welcome, Stephen Harper.) This website should be written in an understandable way, with facts obtained by federally appointed scientists, not lobby groups or Chicken Little.
As a society, we need to up our game when it comes to how we treat the food we eat, as well as communicate this information to consumers.
This is the government's responsibility, and they might want to take a cue from a kid who's just trying to answer an innocuous question.