Canada is losing the food safety optics game against China.
While Canada has demonstrated many times that its food safety record is outstanding – in fact, one of the best in the world – none of it matters now.
Since Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018 on an American request, China has been meticulously following a strategy to demonstrate its utter contempt for the arrest. The effect has been dazzling.
All of this was highly predictable. The recent visit to Washington by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several connections between key leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka were likely in vain. Diplomatically, China has made Canada look like an amateur trying to play in the big leagues.
China has Canada’s food safety number and it knows it.
It started by targeting canola, a Canadian-designed product known around the world. It used this Canadian symbol, along with absurd food safety claims, to make a point. Then it restricted other grain imports like soya, again registering unusual concerns about the safety of grains being shipped. None of these claims have been supported by strong evidence by Chinese authorities.
And now it’s targeting meat.
With meat, China made two interesting arguments. The first was related to ractopamine, which has been banned in many places, including China and Europe, but not in Canada. Ractopamine is a meal additive that promotes leanness in animals raised for meat. Even though it’s no longer used in Canada, China masterfully made this a legitimate point of contention to justify a ban on Canadian meat imports.
The other argument has to do with falsified veterinary documents found in China. The first reports of falsified Canadian documents in China go back more than a decade ago.
Since the tainted infant milk scandal in 2008, when 54,000 children were hospitalized due milk contaminated with melamine, food safety has been on the minds of most Chinese, who now proactively look for foreign products. And given the corruption and complex nature of the Chinese market, food fraud is rampant. Falsified documents allow some products to enter the supply chain, regardless of country of origin.
Canada, among other industrialized countries, is a victim in all of this – its brand is being exploited in China’s vast food supply chain.
And even though this has been going on for years, China is conveniently and brilliantly using it now to justify its ban.
China has played Canada in impressive fashion over the last six months – the latest salvo with meat is a master class.
Given the arguments presented, China could have banned Canadian meat years ago, but it chose to wait until now. So it’s almost impossible to believe that the trade restrictions are not politically motivated.
The two governments can deny it, but the bans are clearly not related to food safety.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that all warfare is based on deception and that it’s important to be extremely prudent in choosing when to engage the enemy. Based on the pattern, Canada’s fish and seafood sector could be China’s next target.
Canada is simply collateral damage in all of this. The real enemy for China, of course, is the United States. China is simply targeting Canada’s food safety weaknesses to show China’s strength and influence. And it’s attempting to break up North America’s camaraderie to set a new narrative around global trade.
You can argue that U.S. President Donald Trump has already weakened his country’s relationship with Canada and Beijing wants to further damage it.
Canada is desperately seeking new markets for its grains and meat products, with some success.
Export of canola seeds to Pakistan increased by more than 150 per cent in the spring, from 65,000 tonnes to 162,000 tonnes. But farmers’ pessimism is evident as seeding for canola dropped by eight per cent this year. At harvest, Canada will have less product to sell, although this could mean prices will rise.
But for meat products, it’s hard to replace the Chinese market. They pay a premium for meat, especially pork, and buy and consume everything from an animal – ears, eyes, hooves, you name it. The convenience China represents is unmatched, so the ban is a significant blow.
An end to the U.S.-China spat could change everything.
But for now, Canada is being outwitted, constantly thrown off guard, always playing catch-up.
Sun Tzu suggested that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Canada has clearly chosen the latter approach.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.