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Column: Surfeit of obfuscation

Labelling on products ranges from proclamations that are bold and clear to declarations using vague terms and printed with small, difficult-to-read fonts.
Lee Valley's catalogues
Lee Valley’s catalogues identify the country of origin of most of their products. Here, for instance, we read that the leather strop is made in France; the blade honing compound is made in the USA, identified by the blue icon next to its name; but the country of origin of the universal sharpener is not mentioned – it happens to be China.

I entered a Lee Valley store the other day and the first thing I saw was a table full of displays, on one of which was a sign proclaiming “Made in Germany.” The words were printed several inches high. You couldn’t miss them. Lee Valley carries lots of items, from all over the world, and if you look through their catalogues, you’ll see the country of origin identified when it’s Canada, the US, or one of the European countries. But never China, although that’s where the majority of items come from. I now automatically conclude that unless specifically stated otherwise, the product is made in China.

There’s more to obfuscate the situation (obfuscate, meaning to confuse, bewilder, comes from the Latin “obfuscare,” to darken). You think you know who produces something, only to find out that the producer has been acquired by another, bigger company. For example, there’s a brand of cookware that’s been the pride of Italy for generations – Lagostina, a company that was founded in 1901 in Omegna, in north-west Italy. In 2004 Lagostina became part of the French Groupe SEB, which has also acquired other famous American and European brands such as All-Clad, Krups, Moulinex and WMF. Many of SEB’s products are now manufactured in China. In the case of Lagostina, most of their cookware is made in China, which I’ve never seen declared on their products. The few items still made in Italy or France are clearly advertised as such. Manufacturing is done in China because of cheap labour, naturally. Strange, then, that the prices usually don’t reflect the lower costs.

When it comes to health supplements, the picture becomes even more bewildering. Webber Naturals, the maker of vitamins and other health products, styles itself “Proudly Canadian.” On its labels you read that the contents are “formulated and packaged in Canada.” But what’s the country of origin of the ingredients? It’s not Canada. Many of the vitamins we consume are manufactured in China – is that where Webber Naturals sources its ingredients? Is it fair that labelling laws allow this kind of information to be concealed? Would the makers of health products fail to disclose it if the ingredients came from Switzerland, for example? Somehow I doubt it.

Also food items are plagued by a surfeit of obfuscation. I walked through the aisles of a local supermarket and examined items on the shelves at random. A can of Western Family Peaches is declared a “Product of Greece” (don’t peaches grow anymore in the Okanagan?), but a can of Western Family Tomato Sauce states “Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients.” Imported from where? China happens to be the world’s largest producer of tomatoes (61,631,581 tonnes in 2021), so is that where those unidentified ingredients come from?

‘Product of’ and ‘Made in’ are terms we frequently encounter on labels, be it food, clothing, cookware, etcetera. If you’re looking for something almost totally Canadian, look for the phrase “Product of Canada.” It means at least 98 per cent “of the total direct costs of producing or manufacturing the product have been incurred in Canada and the last substantial transformation of the product occurred in Canada;” whereas for “Made in Canada” it’s only 51 per cent.

Why should we have to untangle all this terminology every time we shop? It certainly deters me from buying anything. I choose local fresh food whenever possible. If tempted to acquire something other than food, I think twice about it and nearly always conclude I really don’t need it. The positive side to all this obfuscation – it’s made me reluctant to consume, which in turn has made planet Earth a happier and healthier place.