PENDER ISLAND – While Canadian grocery retailers were called to Ottawa in March to account for last year’s record profits amid double-digit food inflation, one micro food producer in the southern Gulf Islands has been lobbying for changes to regulations on the production and sale of cottage foods.
Rising grocery costs and issues of food insecurity irk Pender Island resident Michael Cowan, who used to make soup and bake bread in his home for sale at the local farmers market and to his neighbours. This came to a crashing halt when a food inspector from the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) contacted him and a second vendor in January.
While bread falls within the low-risk category for food-borne illness and can be baked at home for sale at a market, it cannot be sold from home under the BC Food Premises Regulation.
“That very same loaf of bread that I would sell at the market, I cannot sell to a neighbour who’s housebound and is food insecure,” says Cowan, who calls this distinction illogical. “I don’t understand what’s so bad if [I’m] following food safety guidelines.”
Soup is considered high-risk and selling it involves “far too many hoops,” according to Cowan, who has completed FoodSafe training.
In an email, Island Health says the current provincial food safety regulations and guidelines do not vary geographically within BC. Unless the food product is a lower-risk food in accordance with the BC Temporary Food Market Guidelines and solely offered for sale at a temporary food market, home preparation of food for public sale is not allowed. Health approval or a permit is required and the food must be prepared at an approved commercial kitchen.
When they observe issues of non-compliance, health authorities work with food operators, including vendors and market managers, to ensure compliance. Island Health environmental health officers conduct more than 7,000 restaurant, food facility and store inspections each year, including farmers market vendors.
Dawn Larden, coordinator of the Salt Spring Saturday Market, says VIHA has been working with food vendors to meet requirements so they can sell food that is safe for the public. Vendors at the Tuesday farmers market and Saturday market were invited to a meeting in February to learn about the requirements and have their questions answered. Larden says more meetings will be held if there is demand.
“Both the market and VIHA are behind the food vendors,” says Larden. “We are looking at a common kitchen at the middle school for the vendors to share and use.”
Back on Pender, Cowan says the cost to use the commercial kitchen at the local community hall isn’t viable for his volume of sales and he wouldn’t be able to pass on the added cost to his customers.
Rather than sitting down and shutting up, as some Penderites advised him to do, Cowan has been trying to work within the system to effect legislative changes that would allow people to sell homemade food. He believes this is especially important in rural and remote communities.
“In the last 24 months, the fragility of our food system has become very [apparent],” Cowan adds. “These laws need to change.”
Cowan would like the BC government to take a page from cottage food laws south of the border.
“Every state in the US allows the sale of cottage foods. In all those states, I can sell low-risk foods from my house up to a certain dollar value,” he says. “Most states allow only the sale of shelf-stable foods. In some states, like Wyoming and Utah, they allow people to sell nearly all types of homemade foods, including meals and perishable foods.”
Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act allows “unimpeded access to healthy food from known sources” and introduced the concept of an “informed end-consumer” – the last person to purchase a product. Consumers are informed that the vendor they’re patronizing is not licensed, regulated or inspected, and they can’t resell the product they’re buying.
“I really think we need to look at this through more of a systems lens and recognize that it does impact seniors aging in place, single-parent families, marginalized and vulnerable communities,” says Cowan. “It speaks directly to food security and that is why the [BC] Minister of Agriculture needs to leverage the situation and relax the rules somewhat.”
In an email, the BC Ministry of Health says the existing guideline supports the processing of low-risk foods in home kitchens for sale in temporary markets. Staff are also considering an expansion that includes Internet sales and direct sales from the home. Alberta and Ontario have already been contacted but there’s a lot of work ahead.
There are no plans at this time to allow the sale of “high-risk” foods prepared in a home kitchen.
It’s an issue that BC Liberal agriculture critic Ian Paton has been tackling for years. A year ago, he made a second attempt to have home-based foods acknowledged through a private member’s bill, the Home-Based Craft Food Act. It failed to move beyond first reading but he received a number of phone calls from people he didn’t know who thanked him for raising the issue.
Not one to back down, Paton is planning to bring it forward again if the situation doesn’t change, next time with a focus on high-risk foods.
“We want to try and get people in agriculture growing food that they want to turn into an end product, especially in our rural areas where you’re hundreds of kilometres away from a commercial kitchen,” Paton says.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has been looking into global food insecurity and food price inflation.
During questioning, Galen Weston, president of Loblaw Companies Ltd., whose chains include Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills and Wholesale Club, denied that grocery chain profits are the reason behind food inflation.
“Food inflation is a global problem,” said Weston, adding that grocery retailers should be able to make reasonable profits, such as $1 on $25 of sales, or 4% of sales.
Pender Island was not immune to skyrocketing grocery prices this past winter.
“I had a cauliflower over $8. In Sidney the next day it was three bucks. A cucumber was $7 this winter and in Sidney it was $2,” says Cowan. “We’re facing inflation in Canada that’s reaching a four-decade high. People are feeling the pinch.”
Canada’s Food Price Report predicts a 5% to 7% food price increase in 2023, with the most substantial increases in vegetables, dairy and meat. Canadians will continue to feel the effects of high food inflation and insecurity. Contributing factors include climate change, supply chain disruptions, carbon taxes, geopolitical factors and rising transportation costs.
The report is an annual collaboration between research partners Dalhousie University, the University of Guelph, the University of Saskatchewan and UBC.