Canada's Food Laws Ban the Best Burgers

America's neighbor to the north also has a host of dumb regulations.


Renamarie /

My girlfriend and I spent the Christmas holiday in Vancouver, Canada this year.

While there, we visited a bunch of nice sites, saw a good band, and ate some great food. On our last day in the city—Tuesday, which was also Boxing Day—we ate at Joe Forte's, an airy steakhouse just off the city's main tourist avenue, Robson Street.

I was craving a hamburger and figured Forte's, which bills itself as a chophouse, was the place to go. My girlfriend ordered a steak sandwich, cooked medium. I ordered the burger, cooked medium.

My burger was great in every single way possible except for the fact it wasn't cooked the way I'd requested. And that wasn't because the restaurant erred. Instead—as I was warned after ordering my burger medium—it's due to an awful Canadian law that says all restaurant hamburgers must be cooked until no longer pink. Even my response when our great server asked if we had any food allergies—"Overcooked burgers," I replied—got me no closer to a burger cooked my way.

I have no doubt this regulation probably prevents some handful of harmful or even fatal cases of foodborne illness, which can occur if pathogens that may appear in ground beef are not killed off by cooking the beef to an internal temperature of at least 160F. But as a regulation, it's as arbitrary a decision as banning raw animal products such as oysters and sushi, raw produce such as sprouts and melons, and countless other foods that are definitely legal in Canada. In other words, the medium-hamburger ban is both dumb and wrong.

With respect to its burgers, then, Canada is very different than the United States, where diners ordering a medium burger might notice a menu warning cautioning against eating some raw or lightly cooked foods. But if one looks past the specifics of that law, they'll notice Canada, just like the United States, has lots of terrible food laws, along with its share of food controversies.

For example, I wrote last December about an awful proposal by lawmakers in Montreal to ban new restaurants, in a bid to protect existing ones. And in 2011 I blogged about a Canadian Wheat Board monopoly in Western Canada. When—in the course of writing my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable—I was looking for a foreign analog to an awful USDA enforcement action that forced an exceptional American sausage producer out of business, I found I needed look no further than Canada.

Those are just a few of Canada's dumb food laws.

I also learned this week about one of its stranger ongoing food controversies, which Canada's Globe and Mail reports was just settled after a decades-long fight. The battle concerns Prosciutto di Parma, the tasty cured Italian meat, and use of the word "Parma" to describe the food in Canada. The Italian term "di Parma" literally translates as "from Parma." When used in conjunction with prosciutto, it refers to prosciutto that's both from Parma and that meets the EU definition of "Prosciutto di Parma," a specifically defined term that's known as a protected designation of origin.

The truly mind-numbing 83-page EU protected designation of origin rules for what is and isn't "Prosciutto di Parma," adopted in 1992, include the most tedious minutiae about pig breeds, feeding, slaughter, geographic boundaries, altitude, and the like. They also include nausea-inducing language like this: "The envisaged quantitative programming of protected production has to be integrated in a synergetic way with the qualitative classification requirements already introduced by the protection rules (qualitative analytical parameters that uniquely characterize Parma Ham and the production requirements in pig breeding)."

Despite these fastidious and obnoxious EU rules, it turns out it's been illegal for Italian producers of Prosciutto di Parma to refer to their product as "Prosciutto di Parma" in Canada. That's because Canada's Maple Leaf Foods trademarked the term "Parma" in Canada in 1994. The company sells a "Parma" product there, too. This—along with a Canadian court siding with Maple Leaf five years ago in a challenge by Italian producers—has meant Prosciutto di Parma, introduced to Canada in 1995, has been labeled in Canada not as "Prosciutto di Parma" but as "The Original Prosciutto."

It's also meant, as The Globe and Mail report notes, that "Prosciutto di Parma" has been a "name recognized around the world…. except in Canada."

It took a recent trade agreement between Canada and Europe to scrap what was effectively a "Prosciutto di Parma" ban. The fair compromise, reached after a 20-year battle, says both Canadian and Italian producers may use the term "Parma."

"Now, thanks to this agreement, we will be able to legitimately use our Prosciutto di Parma designation as well as our famous, brand-identifying Parma Crown," says Stefano Fanti, who leads Italy's Prosciutto di Parma association.

That's a win for Italian producers and Canadian consumers alike. But Canada—like the U.S.—still has a long way to go before its food laws truly embrace consumers the way its food already does. Until then, I'll stick with American hamburgers.