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Opinion Canada’s Food Guide: The end of the milk doctrine?

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University

The four food group categories that most Canadians know by heart seem to be on their way out. Health Canada has announced it will finally release its long-awaited new food guide in the spring of this year. But the new guide will likely challenge many of our preconceptions about food itself. Information leaked recently suggests that dairy products will no longer have their own category. In fact, milk and other dairy products will now be only one of more than 28 different food items that Health Canada intends to encourage Canadians to eat more of. In doing so, Health Canada will not only show audacity, but for the first time in decades, it will give the food guide a new purpose.

The first food guide in Canada came out in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. At the time, food security was a much more significant issue than it is today. The food guide was more of a tool to showcase Canadian agriculture and stimulate the rural economy. And why not? Our farmers needed the support and food sovereignty at the time had a different meaning. The initial guide had six food groups, instead of four.

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However, not much else has changed since 1942. Other than merging fruits with vegetables and eggs with meat products, and notwithstanding the addition of some nice colours and a few illustrations, the food guide we have today is similar to the one from decades ago.

While Canada has idled in updating its food guide, other countries have made significant progress. The United States systematically revises its food pyramid every five years. The country went from a Basic 7 model in 1943 to a more adaptable version now called MyPlate. Basic 7 and MyPlate are inherently different, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just announced more changes coming in 2019. In Canada, our current food guide is already more than 12 years old. Revision cycles are longer, and changes over time have been modest at best. Along with several European countries, others such as Japan, Brazil and China have modernized their food policies. Most food guides around the world, unlike Canada’s, promote nutrients rather than specific food products.

But Canada apparently now intends to catch up with the rest of the world. Based on some information coming from Health Canada, the food guide will most likely depart from its humble initial purpose of sponsoring agriculture and will finally serve our quest for a better quality of life. Let’s face it, things have changed since 1942. Canadian agriculture is much more diverse, and much more trade focused. Food demand in Canada is more fragmented than ever, as a result of more immigration, and different lifestyles and values affecting food choices.

Changes to our food habits won’t come easily, though. A new approach will likely challenge entrenched conventions that have been protected and institutionalized for decades. If Health Canada does go ahead with the rumoured changes, proteins are certainly one area which will see significant shifts over time.

Dairy is represented by what most consider to be the most influential lobby group in Canadian agriculture, perhaps even in our entire economy. The group spends more than $80-million every year to encourage Canadians to drink milk and eat more dairy products. That’s almost $3 for every Canadian. The current food guide gives dairy a vital place in our diet at four servings a day. Supported by our supply management system for decades, dairy farmers have relied on long-standing, policy-driven support to make a living, from milk served in schools to seeing dairy products promoted at key events across the country. Everything made sense as the synchronicity between trade and domestic food policies was flawless.

But with three new trade deals, which have opened our market to more dairy products coming from abroad, a new food guide without a dairy category or a prescribed number of servings is the last thing the Canadian dairy sector wants. On the other hand, it is exactly what Canadians need – and more than ever. Nutritional security seems to be the new focus, and all Canadians deserve a food guide that can help them better understand how to lead healthier lives.

Obesity, especially among children, is at unacceptable levels in Canada. As well, food security remains a lingering issue influencing our nutritional choices, even in 2019. Welcome additions to the new guide encourage Canadians to value nutrition, to drink water, to consider where and how we eat and with whom. Just setting standards on portions and food products is fruitless.

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Regardless of what happens next, dairy farmers, while producing high-quality products for Canadians, will need to accept that their commodities are now part of a much larger portfolio of good, natural food ingredients. Milk and other dairy products will co-exist with several other commodity groups, which deserve as much attention, if not more.

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