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Sylvain CharleboisAgriculture and Agri-Food Canada is going into marketing. It wants you to buy Canadian.

The federal government intends to spend $25 million over five years starting this summer to promote Canadian food products and instill pride in what our country can bring to our tables.

This is a great idea. 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 government is 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. But other than among a few bureaucrats, it’s unclear if there’s consensus on the matter. It will require some clarification.

It’s also unclear if the Buy Canadian initiative will support “Products of Canada” or products “Made in Canada” – there are subtle but important differences. “Products of Canada” means that all the noteworthy ingredients of a food product are Canadian and that non-Canadian material is insignificant. A “Made in Canada” product suggests the last step of processing occurred in Canada, regardless of where its ingredients came from.

These two labels have Canadians confused about what food products are truly Canadian.

The Buy Canadian campaign could support one, the other or both of these labels. Canadians could end up wondering what the campaign is actually supporting.

Naturally, this could be about “Products of Canada.” But given our climate and the fact we can’t grow everything year round, some “Made in Canada” products are worthy of support since the processing required generates important manufacturing jobs here. But consumers need to know the difference.

But the “buy local” movement built by many provinces could further complicate things. Many provinces have been at it for years and, in some cases, decades. Foodland Ontario, Canada’s Food Island in Prince Edward Island and Aliments du Québec have all successfully promoted local products to their constituents. Because of these programs, buying local for many Canadians is about buying within a province or close to the city where they live.

Adding a federal layer of marketing would only add more noise. And promoting Buy Canadian in some parts of the country, like Quebec, may not be the greatest idea. Just ask Walmart. Its Buy Canadian campaign was a disaster in la belle province.

Perceived protectionism can also become an issue. As a trading nation, Canada can’t be seen as a country that gives an unfair advantage to domestically grown and produced food products. The Americans lost their case at the World Trade Organization when country of origin labelling was implemented a few years ago. Canadian cattle and hog producers will certainly remember.

And then we have Canadian cuisine. It’s highly unlikely that poutine, shepherd’s pie, Nanaimo bars, donair, Hawaiian pizza and butter tarts – all intrinsically Canadian – would be part of this initiative. These Canadian recipes have endured the test of time.

Perhaps it’s high time we promote Canadian cuisine and inspire our food industry to do more. Innovation takes many forms; it’s not just about carrots, tomatoes, Canadian beef or wheat. Promoting Canadian food should be about consumers and not just about farm gate issues. Farmers feed cities, but so do processors, distributors, grocers and the food service industry.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada doesn’t have the greatest reputation when it comes to serving the food industry. Farmers are often critical of our food systems.

But other elements of the supply chain shouldn’t be forgotten. If this initiative is about promoting the industry and providing transparency, then processing, distribution and service need to be in scope.

If not done properly, this program could be a complete disaster.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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