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Beef producers would be wise to cut the fat

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If burgers-on-the-barbecue for Canada Day weekend was a tradition before, it was cemented as a cultural point of pride in 2003 as Canadians rallied in support of beleaguered ranchers shunned by world markets.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/07/2022 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If burgers-on-the-barbecue for Canada Day weekend was a tradition before, it was cemented as a cultural point of pride in 2003 as Canadians rallied in support of beleaguered ranchers shunned by world markets.

Countries had closed their borders to Canadian beef after a cow that died on an Alberta farm was found to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease. Beef was piling up in warehouses and cattle became unsaleable virtually overnight.

Canadians, at the urging of their government leaders, rose to the challenge in a brave but unrealistic bid to do their civic duty and eat the industry back to prosperity a burger or two at a time.

A couple of decades later, Canadians have been getting a very different message about eating ground beef, whether it’s in burgers or lasagna.

In a move many observers found hard to understand, Health Canada included ground beef and pork on the list of processed food products that would soon require warning labels designed to steer consumers away from products high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.

With rising levels of obesity and other diseases related to nutrition, Health Canada wants us to start making better choices when it comes to the foods we eat. Labelling is seen as one way to make people more aware, which hopefully leads to different choices — and lower health-care costs.

“It is assumed that consumers, when given easily accessible information to make healthy food choices, would experience reductions in negative health outcomes over time and these benefits would then compound over time,” the Health Canada notice in the Canada Gazette from 2018 says. “The anticipated net benefit present value to Canadians would be $2.36 billion over 10 years.”

It’s hard to argue against efforts aimed at promoting better health or saving taxpayers’ dollars. On the surface at least, it made sense to include ground beef. Regular ground beef contains levels of saturated fat that are typically much higher than the Health Canada threshold of no more than 15 per cent of the daily recommended value. Even extra-lean ground beef is slightly over that threshold, according to data supplied by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

However, here’s the rub. A consumer can buy a chunk of non-ground beef, for example a blade roast that’s heavily marbled with fat, and not be confronted with a label. However, as soon as the butcher ran that cut of meat through the grinder, it would be flagged as a high-fat food to be avoided, whether or not there are any additional ingredients. Ground beef hardly fits the definition of an “ultra-processed food.”

Besides that, ground beef has redeeming nutritional qualities. It is a relatively inexpensive and versatile source of protein. It also boasts a host of other important nutrients. Canadians seem to agree, as ground beef makes up 50 per cent of Canadian beef consumption; 90 per cent of us consume it weekly.

Sure, it’s replaceable — but not easily, especially with inflation making a big dent in people’s food budgets.

Plant-based meat products are typically more expensive, and they tend to be high in sodium. For example, the Beyond Meat burger contains 390 mg of sodium, which is 17 per cent of the daily recommended maximum.

The warning labels are designed to curtail consumers’ appetite for those types of products. Meanwhile, reducing the fat content in ground meat to below the threshold would increase the cost, which would also drive customers away.

Understandably, the beef and pork sectors lobbied hard for an exemption. The federal government officially backed down on Thursday. So, for now, the status quo is an option.

Over time, however, meat processors are well-advised to cut the saturated fat in their products while balancing the need to maintain affordability. If reduced fat content does indeed result in longer, healthier lives, it’s a wise investment in customer retention at a time when competition in the protein space is growing exponentially.

What the industry can’t afford is the assumption that its place on the nation’s dinner plates is secure.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. You can reach her at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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