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Editorial: The origin of the product

The origin of the product


March 6, 2008
By Marg Land


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I’ve recently become a dedicated food label reader. While the nutritional information is important, my main interest is the product’s place of origin. It’s a lesson I’ve learned through experience.

I’ve recently become a dedicated food label reader. While the nutritional information is important, my main interest is the product’s place of origin. It’s a lesson I’ve learned through experience.

Not too long ago, I was in my local grocery store in search of some yummy items for dinner. I was in an asparagus kind of mood and picked up a package of the frozen vegetable as there was no fresh product available. I thought nothing of the veggie’s place of origin, naively believing that processed asparagus within my local grocery store would be sourced domestically or from the U.S. I was wrong.

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After cooking up a plate-full later that night, my husband approached me with the bag. “China?” he asked. “You bought Chinese asparagus?”

China!?

Sure enough, in big, black letters (that of course I didn’t see at the time of purchase), the label read: Product
of China.

I threw the rest of the asparagus in the garbage. I don’t have anything
personal against China but after covering the collapse of the Canadian apple juice and garlic industries, watching the aftermath of the recent tainted pet food fiasco, checking to make sure my toothpaste and cough syrup didn’t contain antifreeze, throwing out toys that may contain lead paint, on top of viewing one too many documentaries on the Discovery channel, I didn’t feel like eating fruit and vegetables sourced from China. I have faith in the crop protection regulatory systems of Canada and the U.S. but no idea what regulations growers must meet in the Far East.

My next visit to the grocery store resulted in a flurry of label reading. Much to my surprise, quite a number of the processed vegetable products on the store shelves and in the store freezer were sourced from China. According to a recent report by the CBC, Canadian imports from China have increased by 400 per cent over the past 10 years. And thus my dedication to label reading was born.

It was this experience that immediately came to mind when I read about CanGro’s recent announcement that it will sell or close down its vegetable and fruit processing plants in St. Davids and Exeter, Ont., by March 31, 2008. According to a letter issued to employees and a press release forwarded to the media, the company plans to “outsource” its branded canned fruit and vegetable business.

While there has been no announcement as to who will be supplying this “outsourced” product, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to look east. After all, the peach did originate from China, where it has been cultivated for the past 4,000 years, and the country does grow about 4.5 million tons of the fruit on three million acres (2003). China is also the top pear-producing country in the world, growing more than 12 million metric tons of the fruit (2006/2007). Add to this the fact that farm wages in China are incredibly low compared to North America, with the average farmer earning between $500 and $1,000 US per year.

How can a Canadian grower compete with these numbers?

Local politicians are calling on the provincial government to step in and ensure something is done to preserve the processing plant jobs and that the “delicate balance of Niagara’s agriculture industry is not disrupted.

“There’s far more at stake here than the loss of two manufacturing plants,” states Niagara West-Glanbrook MPP Tim Hudak and Oxford MPP Ernie
Hardeman (agriculture critic for the Progressive Conservatives) in a letter addressed to Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Indeed there is. The health of consumers should also be considered. While Canadian growers are increasingly being required to implement more procedures and processes to ensure the safety of the produce they grow, the same standards aren’t necessarily being required in other countries. According to a recent report by U.S. think-tank, the Jamestown Foundation: “Since the transition to a market economy, Chinese farmers have increasingly used dangerous or illegal pesticides and fertilizers to increase yields, used improper antibiotics and hormones to improve livestock and fish growth, and employed illegal preservatives to increase marketability of semi-processed products.”

The report goes on to list an alarming number of deaths both in China and around the world that have occurred as a result of fake product or illegal and dangerous ingredients being added to products exported from China.

“U.S. customs officials have discovered and embargoed numerous shipments of foodstuffs from China that are filthy or contaminated with banned chemicals,” the Jamestown Foundation report goes on to state. “From the production standpoint, these incidents reflect two things: poor manufacturing practices due to the producer’s effort to increase profits at the expense of safety, and the Chinese government’s inability to effectively regulate a decentralized production base.”

Doesn’t leave one with much faith in the supplier, does it?

Of course, all of this speculation is just that – speculation. CanGro has not announced a supplier for its “outsourced” canned brand products. The deadline for sale or closure has not yet passed. Who knows, perhaps a solution can be found and the two processing plants will remain open.

But I will be closely watching the labels of the fruit cocktail snacks purchased for my children’s lunches. And in the end, my mother may have to
instruct me on how to can my own. ❦


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