How safe is the food we eat?

The expression “too good to be true” may be a fitting de­scription of prices on some food that is imported and sold on Canadian grocery shelves.

In fact, great bargains on items such as strawberries or beans could actually be counter-productive to food sovereignty and food safety.

What is food sovereignty? It is the right of people, communities and countries to de­fine their own agricultural, food, labour, and land policies that are ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally appropriate to their circumstances.

It also includes the right to safe and nutritious food and food-producing resources, and the ability to sustain themselv­es and their societies.

Consider the issue of food safety. Throughout the domestic food production, processing, and marketing chain, Can­ada has one of the safest food supply systems in the world.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other countries that export food to Canada.

Many items appearing on grocery store shelves today are very low-priced and with in­creasing frequency, cheaper imports are actually displacing items grown in Canada. Why are they so cheap? The lack of food safety, environmental, and labour standards in some countries is a major contributing factor.

There have been numerous cases where food imported from China is unsafe not only for animals, but for humans as well. A 2007 World Health Organization report highlighted that China’s system included at least nine ministries and other agencies involved in the food safety network – none with any authority over the others.

Despite that, Statistics Can­ada has reported that over the last decade, food imports from China rose by almost 300 per cent. Much of that food is fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to Bette Jean Crews, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agri­culture, “Being conscious of the value of Ontario’s high food safety standards is a positive step in understanding why locally produced food may cost more than imports.”

Many of our safety standards are regulatory in nature, however Ontario farmers also follow best practices for water and manure management, crop protection, environmental stew­ardship, and food safety – all on a voluntary basis.

“These initiatives come with a price tag, but if we buy Ontario produce because of the confidence level we have in its quality and safety, then the spill-over support of our local farmers will ensure they are still here to grow food for our grandchildren,” Crews explain­ed.

What about the cost of lab­our? Canadians recognize the importance of buying clothing from manufacturers who do not use child labour or engage in “sweatshop” practices.

Why, the,n does that same moral standard not apply to the grocery bill? We have labour laws that protect workers on many fronts, and once again there are costs associated with maintaining workplace safety standards – whether it be a factory, office, or on the farm.

It is important that we also “walk the talk” when it comes to how environmentally conscious we are as consumers. Buying low-cost imported food could be supporting poor environmental practices used in some countries. Consider, too, the environmental costs of the “food miles” involved in transporting food from longer distances.

“There are many cases in which Canadians share their agricultural expertise by teaching less developed countries to be self-sufficient,” Crews said.

“Perhaps it’s time to balance these initiatives to ensure that whenever we can, here in Ontario, we adopt a buy local approach to grocery shopping. Our ability to sustain a viable agricultural industry in this province could depend on how far we are willing to go.”

To find out how and where to buy locally grown or raised food in Wellington County, log on to the Wellington Federation of Agriculture website at  and click on the Buy Local Buy Fresh icon.

Submitted by the Wellington Federation of Agriculture (WFA)