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Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is going into marketing. It wants you to buy Canadian, as much as you can.
The buy Canadian campaign is about to start, sometime this summer, and the federal government intends to spend $25 million over five years to promote Canadian food products and instill pride in Canadians for what our country can bring to our tables.
This is a great idea, in theory, but promoting Canadian products may not be quite so simple.
The idea is to tell the story of our food sector and highlight the advantages of Canadian-made food products.
The initiative also intends to provide transparency so Canadians can understand how our products are made.
The focus is to build public trust in our food sector and promote Canada’s brand, if it can be defined.
The Canadian government is now looking for a marketing firm to promote Canadian food products and honour the mandate put forward by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
To deliver on such an important task, the firm will need to rely on how we see Canada’s brand in food.
Other than a few bureaucrats in Ottawa and elsewhere, it’s unclear if a consensus has been reached on the matter.
Many will have varying opinions and will require some clarification. Secondly, it is unclear if the buy Canadian initiative will support “products of Canada” or products “made in Canada” - there are subtle but important differences.
A product of Canada means that all the noteworthy ingredients of a food product are Canadian, and that non-Canadian material is insignificant.
However, a made in Canada product suggests that the last step of processing occurred in Canada, regardless of whether its ingredients came from abroad or not.
These two labels have left Canadians confused as to what food products are truly Canadian.
The buy Canadian campaign could support one, the other, or both of these labels. Regardless, Canadians could end up wondering what the campaign is actually supporting.
Naturally, this could be about products of Canada, but given our Nordic climate and that we cannot grow everything all year round, some made in Canada products are worthy of support and the processing required does generate some important manufacturing jobs here at home.
But consumers need to know the difference.
What can complicate things is the buy local movement legacy built by provinces.
Many provinces have been at it for years - in some cases, decades. FoodLand Ontario, Canada’s Food Island in Prince Edward Island, and Aliments Québec in the province of Quebec have all been quite successful in promoting local products to their own constituents.
Because of these programs, buying local, for many Canadians, is about buying within a province, or close to the city where they live.
At this point, adding a federal layer of marketing would only add more noise. And promoting buy Canadian in some parts of the country, like Quebec for example, may not be the greatest of ideas.
Just ask Walmart. Their buy Canadian campaign was a disaster in la Belle Province.
Perceived protectionism can also become an issue with this campaign. As a trading nation, Canada cannot be seen as a country which gives an unfair advantage to domestically grown and produced food products.
The Americans lost their case at the World Trade Organization when COOL (country of original labelling) was implemented and promoted a few years ago. Canadian cattle and hog producers will certainly remember.
And then we have Canadian cuisine. It is highly unlikely that poutine, shepherd’s pie, Nanaimo bars, the mighty donair, Hawaiian pizza, and butter tarts that are intrinsically Canadian, would be part of this initiative.
These are Canadian recipes that have endured the test of time. Thinking outside the box, perhaps it is high time we promote Canadian cuisine and inspire our food industry to do more in years to come.
Innovation, for all intent and purposes, takes different forms; it’s not just about carrots, tomatoes, Canadian beef, or wheat.
Promoting Canadian food should be about consumers, and not solely about farmgate issues. Farmers feed cities, but so do processors, distributors, grocers, and the foodservice industry.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada does not have the greatest reputation when it comes to serving the food industry.
Farmers are critical of our food systems, but other elements of the supply chain should not be forgotten.
If this initiative is about promoting the industry and providing transparency, then processing, distribution, and service need to be in scope.
In the end, if this program isn't implemented properly, it has the potential to become a complete disaster.
Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.