Binkley Report on food safety

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...
The Binkley Report

The right recipe for food safety

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

After years of talking about it, the government has introduced legislation to streamline and update Canada’s food safety system.

The changes are not only important to protecting consumers from unsafe products; they could also help the vital food industry expand exports. That would mean more business for our farmers and more jobs in the food industry. To do that, we need to make sure we get the legislation and the ensuing regulations right.

Since the 2011 election, most government bills have been frog-marched through Parliament under specious claims about the need to improve the economy.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has promised the Safe Foods for Canadians Act will get a full airing in both the Senate and the Commons. Let’s hope he sticks to his position.

While the opposition parties will raise some criticisms, the government has most of the farm community and food industry onside with the general thrust of its approach. Which is hardly a surprise as the proposed changes have been discussed by federal and provincial governments and the farm and food industry since the mid 1990s.

And there’s no need to rush the bill through because the government and industry have yet to fully discuss the massive regulatory package that will put the teeth into the new law.

What’s more, the bill provides Parliament an opportunity to handle legislation the way it is supposed to, not the shouting matches we’ve been subjected to recently. It could be just the recipe the politicians need.

Echoing comments from many other farm and food industry groups, CFA President Ron Bonnett said the legislation will lead to “performance based regulatory tools that will enhance food safety and increase the competitiveness of our industry. (It) provides an opportunity to build on Canada’s excellent reputation as a global food safety leader and will enhance our ability to provide Canadians with safe food while also strengthening our ability to meet the requirements of international markets.”

Recently obtained documents shows that two decades ago, federal and provincial officials wrestled with many of the same food safety issues that confronted the drafters of the new bill — growing food exports and imports, increased threats to the food supply and changing consumer tastes.

As the Canadian Supply Chain Safety Coalition recently told Parliament, the food industry supports “the development and implementation of a national, co-ordinated approach to food safety to ensure credibility in the domestic and international marketplaces.”

What it wants government to get on with, now that the bill has been presented to Parliament, is development of a National Food Safety Strategy. It has to involve everyone involved in getting food safely from the farm to the consumer.

“Canadians, no matter where they reside or purchase their food, are entitled to the same level of assurances about its safety, assurances that should be based on common standards and expectations,” said Coalition Executive Director Albert Chambers. “A corollary of this statement is that agri-food businesses within each link of the supply chain should be asked to operate according to common standards and expectations within and amongst the responsible jurisdictions. Our expectation of imported food products should be, as a matter of course, the same as we would expect from our national system.

“We cannot overemphasize the importance of moving forward now to develop a National Food Safety Strategy,” he added. “It should be the foundation of the modernization of Canada’s food safety legislation and regulations at both the federal and the provincial/territorial levels.”

Many countries are well ahead of Canada in establishing new food safety strategies and implemented major changes in food safety legislation and regulations, the Coalition noted.

One of the most important is the United States, which is Canada’s biggest agri-food trading partner. “The new US approach to food safety will push their legislative and regulatory requirements well beyond their borders. (That will put) great pressure on Canadian agri-food exporters and will have ramifications in our domestic market for years to come.”

In recent years, many farm and food organizations have developed safety programs for their supply chain, Chambers noted. There are more than 20 farm safety programs covering approximately 99% of primary production. The food industry has also made major progress.

The food safety bill should recognize and build on what industry has accomplished.