A very bad decision.
That’s how Florent Gravel, the long-time president and general manager of Quebec’s dominant grocers’ association, sums up last week’s surprise announcement by the province’s agriculture and food ministry that it has abolished the regulation that prohibits the sale of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables in Quebec food stores.
The move was initially heralded by government and consumer and environmental groups as a victory in the war on food waste.
“Everyone’s a winner,” Quebec Minister of Agriculture Pierre Paradis was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the changes on Aug. 4. “Businesses can diversify what they offer and farms will have the chance to sell a larger portion of their harvest.”
Turns out, however, that the killed regulation also compelled merchants to mark ‘Produit du Quebec’ on locally-grown bulk apples, tomatoes and other fresh fruits and vegetables).
Bulk sales, says Gravel, represent the lion’s share of revenues in the produce departments of grocery stores across Canada.
Though packaged produce must continue to show place of origin (under another Quebec food regulation), he says the government has inadvertently created a new set of problems that didn’t exist before.
“For sure it’s going to create confusion among consumers,” Gravel told Canadian Grocer this week from the downtown Montreal offices of the 8,000-member Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec. “The government has spent a lot of time and money over the past decade establishing a marketing system that works well very to promote Quebec produce.
“Like the saying goes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But in this case they didn’t even fix it, they threw it away.”
He also suggested that the new regulation void could encourage unscrupulous food distributors and retailers to falsely mix, market or label imported bulk produce as more sought-after, premium-priced local produce.
He pointed to the case of Ontario’s Mucci Farms, which was fined $1.5 million in early June for selling foreign-sourced vegetables (mostly Mexican tomatoes) as locally-grown ones to several leading Canadian grocery chains, including Loblaw and Costco.
“The Quebec government has now opened the door to that kind of abuse,” says Gravel.
Last week’s regulatory announcement, he added, “came out of the blue, like a lightning bolt.”
Gravel said his association members are frustrated by the government’s failure to consult them about the planned changes, and their lack of foresight in regards to the consequences.
“The intention was likely good,” he said. “But it was a very rash and bad decision.”
Quebec’s massive farmers union voiced similar sentiments.
“It is a monumental error,” said Patrice Juneau, a spokesperson for 42,000-member Union des producteurs du Québec – or UPA.
According to Juneau, the UPA was equally blindsided and floored by the decision to allow the sale of misshapen produce, which it is against for various reasons, and the abolishment of mandatory origin labeling of bulk produce.
“The government’s promotion of ugly fruit has created an ugly mess,” Juneau told Canadian Grocer.
Quebec’s agriculture ministry, known as MAPAQ, did not return calls or emails on the issue.
However, in a statement issued on its website on Aug. 9, it said that the “Produit du Québec” label on bulk “could again be made mandatory by modifications to (other provincial) food regulations.”