VANCOUVER—Consumers and experts are voicing concerns over an artificial growth hormone allowed in American milk that may flow into the Canadian market following the new NAFTA trade deal.
Under the new agreement, the U.S. can export tariff-free dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt amounting to about 3.6 per cent of the Canadian market over six years.
There is growing worry that recombinant bovine growth hormone or rBGH — a man-made substance illegal in Canada, but used on cows in the U.S. — could make it onto grocery shelves in Canada.
Marie-Claude Fortin, a former scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said “limited data” shows there’s no scientific evidence suggesting it poses a problem to human health and that it is more of an animal welfare issue.
Use of growth hormones increases the risk of disease in cows and can reduce their lifespan, she said.
With more American milk expected to enter Canadian markets, she said it’s possible that the milk will arrive in bulk and packaged under common local brands, making it hard for shoppers to know whether their milk has the hormone or not.
“I’d be very surprised if people would be able to differentiate U.S. milk from Canadian milk, or dairy products,” Fortin said. “If consumers really want to know where their milk comes from, they’ll have to say it loud and clear. At this time, there’s nothing in place that forces a processing company to tell you where they source their milk.”
Since Monday when the deal was made, Trevor Hargreaves, spokesperson for the BC Dairy Association, has received an “outpouring” of 50 queries from people worried about the impact to the industry and about growth hormone in American milk.
Any enforcement would be governed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, he said. “Just because you’re letting the food in, it still needs to [meet] Canadian standards.” It wouldn’t be fair to ask Canadian farmers to apply one set of standards while accepting foods from another set of standards, he added.
In the short-term, he advises shoppers to look for the blue cow sticker with the 100 per cent Canadian milk label. As for any long-term plan, “I doubt that they’ve [the Canadian government] even given this any thought at this point.”
When asked whether milk containing this hormone could enter Canadian supply, Health Canada responded by saying that the substance is “not approved for use in Canada because of concerns it may affect animal health.” Health Canada did not address how it will differentiate between milk containing the hormone and hormone-free milk.
According to the Canadian government, the NAFTA agreement has exceptions built in. One of the articles states that it “include environmental measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health.”
So far, Hargreaves said, meetings between dairy industry leaders and the federal government has been about reassuring farmers are compensated for having to produce less.
“The response was: we don’t want your compensation, we want a viable industry,” he added.
Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based reporter covering business. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyPengNow