27, 2004: Last month, fresh sushi was banned in Ontario
– maybe. Health officials have formalized rules which
require the fish to be frozen first. There’s a three-month
stay on enforcement. Politicians were quick to respond with
talk of a review. The official rationale for the new regulation?
-- freezing raw fish is an effective way to remove parasites.
Also last month, General Mills, the second largest cereal
producer in the U.S., announced its imminent conversion of
all its breakfast cereals to whole grain. Twenty-nine cereals
will feature new recipes and packaging as they join Cheerios
and Wheaties in the healthier eating aisle. The official rationale
for the nutritional makeover? -- the “Whole Grain”
label on every box will make it easier for consumers to eat
These stories took me back to the seminar series sponsored
last winter by the Christian Farmers Federation on the theme:
“Out of an Abundance of Caution.” We say, “Food
is safe for health, farming systems are safe for the environment”
and then we load on the regulations, cook up new recipes and
retarget the message. At the end of a day of exploring the
growing vigilance permeating the food chain, we asked seminar
participants: What is driving us to become so cautious?
Throughout the seminar series a total of 370 reasons for
caution were recorded. Grouping them resulted in a number
of themes for both society and farmers.
Society has become cautious because consumer attitudes and
characteristic have changed, society is losing its ability
to take risks, the media has emphasized perception rather
than fact, trust throughout the food chain has eroded and
governments have lost credibility.
According to participants, consumers have become more health
conscious, are better educated on the connection between food
and health, are more likely to make decisions based on emotions
and have become detached from the source of their food. This
disconnect between consumers and producers is generating a
fear of the unknown (30 %). Society, in general, has become
risk-averse in response to globalization, to awareness created
by the discovery in Canada of SARS, Avian flu and mad cow
disease, to technology such as transgenic modification and
in response to the threat of terrorism (29 %). The media blows
concerns about the food chain out of proportion through sensationalism
and emphasizing the risks, while not bothering with sound
comparative facts (22 %). A lack of trust and fear of the
unknown was blamed on the anonymity and the lack of relationships
between the participants in the food chain (14 %). Government
credibility was described as non-existent because they had,
for too long, emphasized cheap food (5 %.
Farmers are adopting more cautious approaches on their own
farms because of market signals, their own desire to be responsible,
fear of liability, the pressure of regulations and a sincere
desire to reassure consumers. One of the breakout groups wrote:
“We are no longer innocent until proven guilty.”
Participants themselves have become more cautious and support
various assurance schemes to protect market shares and slim
margins, have an edge in the marketplace, be part of “new
and improved” products, access premiums, open export
markets and meet and exceed standards. They recognized that
the concentration of market clout by a few transnational corporations
creates competition and access issues that keep them scrambling
to keep up with the pace of change (30 %). Participants want
to be good stewards. They want to be recognized as proactive,
responsible, caring, constantly improving, professional, science-based,
accountable, committed to sustainable agriculture and be able
to take pride in their production (22 %). Others felt forced
into cautious activities to meet regulations, document their
due diligence, create traceability and get the few who are
careless to meet standards (20 %). One breakout group wrote
“have to go along to get along.” A number have
changed practices out of fear of litigation and nervousness
about some of the recent experiences in the Canadian food
system such as the discovery of mad cow disease and Avian
flu (18 %). Others are participating in documented assurance
programs to emphasize the need to maintain consumer confidence
in farm practices and products (11 %).
Our growing sense of caution is a response to a simple fact:
the human footprint in our environment is growing. We eat
and drink our environment.
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