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Opinion The new Canada Food Guide means the jig is up for meat and milk lobbies

The most useful piece of dietary advice in the proposed update of the Canada Food Guide, a draft version of which has caused an uproar among beef and dairy producers, has nothing to do with how much meat or milk Canadians should or should not consume each day.

No, the best advice the bureaucrats at Health Canada have come up with is a warning to “be aware of food marketing.”

After all, the public-relations prowess of Canada’s dairy and meat producers is second only to their lobbying might. For decades, the dairy and meat industries have masterfully shaped public policy and eating habits alike with a combination of slick marketing and political arm-twisting.

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Thankfully, someone at Health Canada has woken up. The proposed new Canada Food Guide would do away with separate “milk products” and “meat and alternatives” food groups. Instead, they would be included under the umbrella of “protein foods,” together with a host of plant-based alternatives.

If the guide’s draft version makes the cut, the myth that humans need to consume a number of portions of meat or milk products on a daily basis will finally have been officially shattered. Indeed, by urging Canadians to limit the intake of saturated fats, as the draft suggests, the new guide should nudge them into eating less meat.

The overhaul of the guide has been in the works for three years. Hence, the draft version that was tested in focus groups, under a federal contract awarded to Earnscliffe Strategy Group, surprised absolutely no one. Yet, dairy and beef industry representatives still expressed their indignation at being snubbed by Health Canada.

“The direction proposed by the new food guide is not evidence-based and could have further long-lasting consequences on a sector that has already been placed in a difficult position by this government,” Dairy Farmers of Canada said in a statement, referring to recent Liberal trade deals that have increased foreign cheese and milk producers’ access to the domestic market. The organization called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “direct the Minister of Health [Ginette Petitpas Taylor] to do her homework by considering and taking into account all available scientific evidence prior to the release of the new food guide.”

The latter demand was a dig at Health Canada’s refusal to include industry-financed studies in the evidence it has collected to update the food guide.

The beef industry’s response has been somewhat less apoplectic, after its representatives were apparently reassured by Ms. Petitpas Taylor in a meeting last May that the new food guide “would not tell Canadians to eat less meat.”

At least not explicitly, anyway. Besides, unlike our uncompetitive dairy farmers, Canada’s beef and pork producers stand to make big gains under new trade agreements that expand their access to the European and Japanese markets.

We won’t know until the new Canada Food Guide has been officially released whether Health Canada will have been able to maintain its independence from both the lobbyists and the politicians, including the dozens of MPs with beef and dairy farmers in their ridings who are upset. But let’s hope the agency is able to stand its ground and help put Canadians on track to a healthier and more sustainable diet.

Milk and meat are chock-full of nutrients. But they are not essential to the human diet, especially as other sources of the nutrients they provide are more readily available to Canadians than ever.

By all accounts, Canadians still eat too much meat, with the clogged arteries and waistlines to show for it. And while the Canada Food Guide’s focus is on nutrition, the environmental benefits of consuming less meat and milk would be considerable.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” Oxford University professor Joseph Poore told The Guardian last year. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

Prof. Poore co-authored a 2018 study published in the journal Science that showed that, while dairy and meat products provided just 18 per cent of calories consumed by humans, their production monopolizes 83 per cent of global farmland and is responsible for 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases generated by agriculture. The loss of forest cover to farmland is one of the main causes of species loss and global warming.

The meat and milk lobbies have had a good run. But it’s time to put them out to pasture.

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