Wednesday, January 7, 2009

on Canada's foreign cheddar

As much as I try to stay up to date on issues related to the foods we eat, I still get surprised. A few years back I was given Michael Pollen's book The Botany of Desire, an interesting take on how certain species of plants have become adopted as preferred food choices. In it, Pollen talks about how that farmers growing the Golden Russet variety potatoes preferred by fast food joints require heavy spraying of chemicals to reduce the number of brown spots that can develop in the flesh of the potato. The brown spots are perfectly harmless, but according to Pollen the world's largest fast food chain and its imitators like it that their fries look as yellow and unspotted as possible.  Ever since reading that, I've followed research and writing on our food production systems.

There are any number of books and films out there that can scare the living daylights out of you regarding what goes into industrial food production, and scholars like Syracuse geographer Don Mitchell have done equally worrying studies about how we treat agricultural labourers. Add to this the growing awareness of the amount of carbon dioxide emissions embedded in every shipment of imported fruits and vegetables, the rapid depletion of many of the western world's preferred wild fish species and the never-ending stream of advise from dietitians about good fats/bad fats, etc, and you start to worry you need a second PhD just to learn how to avoid eating yourself and the planet into a dark future.

In my own family, we have never eaten much in the way of tinned or packaged food beyond tinned tomatoes during the winter time, and I have for the most part given up my role as the only fast food junkie in the house. As we have become more aware of food issues (for lack of a better description) we have slowly been making further adjustments to our food consumption patterns. In summer, we try as often as possible to buy our weekly produce at one of Ottawa's farmers markets. The Lansdowne Park farmer's market has adopted a 100-mile policy, with the exception of soft fruits, which come from a Niagara Peninsula producer (try as you might, you can't grow peaches commercially in our climate). When winter arrives and we are obliged to buy veggies from the stores again, we try to diversify as much as possible. We buy frozen Canadian-grown veggies for our almost daily homemade soups, and we supplement our Canadian-grown apples, potatoes and carrots with fresh organic greens from abroad (if you have to buy from California, it may as well be organic). Canadian apple juice contains as much vitamin C as imported orange juice, so we skip the latter.

That does not mean to say that Canadian products are always the best choice, hence the surprise I referred to in the opening paragraph. In today's Globe and Mail, Sue Riedl reports that Canada's largest cheese makers - Kraft, Saputo and Parmalat - will be going before the Supreme Court to fight a new federal food safety regulation that will require them to make their milk out of 100% cheddar cheese. If you check the ingredients of the common brand name cheddars made by those companies, you'll find that they typically contain "modified milk ingredients" or similar milk-like substances. The big companies are arguing that the new regulation will provide an unfair benefit to Canadian dairy farmers (translation: Kraft et al may have to substitute a cheaper input with a more expensive one).

It's not so much the learning of the court case that troubled me (any time you regulate an industry dominated by a few large companies, they're bound to whine to the courts if the new regs will cost them even a penny, regardless of whether it is better for their customers or not), nor the fact that big producers have been using modified milk ingredients. I must confess, I don't know exactly what goes into a modified milk ingredient, but have no reason to assume the process poses any concerns (perhaps there are concerns I am unaware of?). No, it was the revelation that the modified milk ingredients may not have originated from Canadian milk, but are often imported from abroad. That's what troubles me.

I used to live in the US , and if I lived there today, I would be buying organic dairy products. I do not have the same concerns about Canadian milk; our producers have tighter controls on what they feed dairy cattle, the conditions under which cattle are kept, the use of medications and hormones, etc. We have a preschool child in our family who eats a lot of cheese, who I do not want consuming foreign-produced milk products when there is perfectly good milk being produced here in Ontario and Quebec. Lately we started buying cheddar cheese produced by the St Albert Cooperative based here in the Ottawa valley. We did so simply because their cheese tasted better and it is found in most supermarkets; we never really looked at the ingredients. Just the same, when a block of the mass-produced cheddars was on sale we would still often buy it. Not anymore, and we won't be doing so even should Kraft et al lose their court challenge and against their will be forced to make a better quality product. I checked the St Albert website, and (should I again be surprised?) they use 100% milk in their cheese. When will I ever learn to trust my taste buds.

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