Is Federal Food Safety Systerm Losing Its Way?

 

Food producers say federal agency is high-handed and unaccountable

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) was formed in 1997 to consolidate the federal government’s food inspection operations under one roof. Not only was that to lead to an even safer food supply, it was also supposed to improve the reputation of Canadian food internationally leading to more exports and jobs.

Despite the nasty Listeria outbreak in 2008 that left 22 people dead and other problems that crop up, Canadadoes have a good food supply. Do you worry every time you go into a grocery store?

But the food industry that CFIA was to help make better is, in a disturbing number of cases, feeling abused by its high-handed and unaccountable actions.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has been warning since 2007 about an antagonistic attitude among CFIA inspectors toward food processors across Canada.

Last year, CFIB included the Agency’s high-handed dealings with its many small agri-food members in its report about the stifling impact of government red tape on business in Canada. That didn’t have much impact on the CFIA, says Virginia Labbie, senior policy analyst with CFIB, but Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the minister the Agency reports to, has taken an interest in the issue.

Abbie says the frustration for food companies is that they try to produce a safe product but they have to cope with inspectors who won’t explain their rulings or even answer questions about CFIA policies. “We’re trying to bring a serious issue to light.”

The owners accept the need for food safety regulation but they no recourse in disputes but to take CFIA to court, an expensive process titled very much in the Agency’s favour. CFIB recommends the appointment of a Food Producers’ Ombudsman that companies could take their complaints to.

“Our members have to deal with CFIA on a regular basis,” L’Abbie says. “There’s a lack of fairness and transparency. This is not supposed to be an adversarial relationship.”

CFIB was a lonely voice until last summer when former CFIA President Ronald Doering, an Ottawa food law lawyer, featured the Agency in his monthly Food Watch column. Called "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid", the column starts with a humorous tale of a bull and a CFIA inspector but goes onto to recount the industry’s frustration with CFIA.

CFIB and Doering could fill pages with their accounts of CFIA bullying of food companies.

In his column, Doering advised, “No one in the food industry should have any illusions about the powers of the CFIA to enforce its 10 statutes and hundreds of pages of regulations. Increasingly, and more than it should, the CFIA has been charging people in the criminal courts for what are really minor infractions.

“Many of these regulations incorporate guidelines, manuals, and directives that are both made by officials and interpreted by them,” he noted. “So the hundreds of pages of formal food law do not even begin to capture the weight of the hand of government, a hand that is mostly thumbs with few fingers.

“There is no administrative appeal of CFIA decisions or other redress mechanisms,” Doering added. “Judicial reviews are few, high risk and expensive. To help balance these powers, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act requires the government to appoint a ministerial advisory board as an accountability mechanism but, inexplicably, the Board hasn’t existed for a decade. Why the food industry tolerates this is a continuing mystery.”

Some months later, Doering got a surprise phone call from Ritz’s office inviting him to be chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on CFIA, which the minister has revived. One of the first issues on the agenda was how CFIA uses its inspection powers. Maybe the ombudsman concept won’t be far behind.

We’ll see if the committee can convince this government to return CFIA to one of its intended duties instead of being an administrative bully.