Last week, the Canada-U.S.-Mexico trade agreement (CUSMA) officially went into effect, bringing with it a host of key changes — especially for the Canadian dairy sector.
Under the new agreement, Canada will provide U.S. dairy farmers access to about 3.5 per cent of its $16 billion annual domestic dairy market.
This means America will be able to increase exports of some milk products to Canada.
However, Canada and the U.S. have different guidelines and rules when it comes to the production of dairy products, raising the question: Should Canadians be concerned about the safety and quality of these American products?
Here’s what experts say.
Health, safety concerns?
David Wiens, vice-president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, said Canada has “the highest standards in the world for both the quality and safety for our dairy products.“
He said there is an audited assurance program which sets standards for all farms. In order to be allowed to produce milk, every farm must meet these standards.
The United States do things differently, Wiens explained, saying rules and regulations can vary between states.
“Different co-ops will have different kind of assurance programs or standards,” he said.
And while milk imported from abroad must meet Canadian health and safety standards, there is no requirement that the farms at which they are produced have to meet Canada’s on-farm standards.
This means some U.S. dairy farms still utilize products like Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rSBT) — a genetically-engineered hormone that increases milk production in cows — which is banned in Canada, Wiens explained.
What’s more, Wiens said there are currently no restrictions that bar products from animals containing rBST from entering into Canada.
This is because the hormone is considered an animal health concern, not a human health one, he explained
“The foreign products need to meet the Canadian standards for health and safety from a human perspective, but not from how the product is produced,” he said.
Wiens added that products made from dairy produced by animals containing rBST “won’t necessarily” be labelled as such.
“I would say that this would be a concern,” he said. “I do know that Canadian consumers are concerned about how their food is produced, and I know that there is a lot of concern about the use of the production hormones in food production.”
In an email to Global News on Thursday, a spokesperson from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said all domestic and imported foods sold in Canada, including dairy products imported from the United States “must meet Canada’s food safety and labelling laws.”
“Compositional requirements for dairy products continue to apply to all imported dairy products,” the email reads.
Sophia Murphy, senior specialist of Agriculture and Investment at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said she doesn’t think Canadians need to be worried about the safety of American dairy products.
“I don’t know what Canada will do, but I’m assuming that in the process of harmonizing they certainly won’t be doing anything to jeopardize Canadian’s health,” she said. “I don’t see that happening.”
However, Murphy said there are some differences in animal welfare requirements between the two countries, and that Canadians may “feel differently” about how the milk is produced.
“But I don’t think it’s going to be the milk that’s harmful to humans,” she said.
In fact, Murphy said she doesn’t think Canadians can expect to see litres of American milk in grocery stores.
“I think we’re going to see processors in Canada who are churning out cheese and adding milk to bread and adding dairy to all sorts of processed foods,” she explained.
“I suspect that’s where this American milk is going to go.”
Murphy said she assumes Canada will only accept milk product from the U.S. from rBST-free cattle.
“But I don’t know that for a certainty,” she said.
Sylvain Charlebois, professor at Dalhousie University and scientific director at Agri-Food Analytics Lab, echoed Murphy’s remarks, saying it’s unlikely that products from animals with rBST will make it to Canada.
“(Canadians) shouldn’t be concerned about the hormones at all, they shouldn’t be concerned about the food safety or the safety of the products coming into Canada because the onus is on Canadian importers,” he explained.
“They’ll be the ones selling the products and they don’t want their reputation to be damaged“
What’s more, Charlebois said the changes could actually end up being a positive for Canadian consumers.
“They’ll have more choice,” he said. “I don’t think dairy products will get cheaper, but they won’t get any more expensive.”
— With files from Reuters