Binkley - Food safety on federal menu


Food safety on the federal menu

But selective conservative changes only are needed

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

It’s widely expected the Harper government will propose a significant overhaul of food safety laws in the current session of Parliamernt.

It will be driven by a promise to fully implement the recommendations of a report on the deadly 2008 Listeria outbreak and pressure from federal regulators and the food industry for changes.

The government should take a close look at a survey recently completed for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and some sage counsel from Ronald Doering, a former CFIA president and Ottawa based food law lawyer. They suggest the government needs to be selective rather than sweeping in what it changes. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

The survey by Leger Marketing found Canadian are generally confident about the food safety system in Canada. But there were concerns about the safety of imported products and a lot of uncertainty about what the CFIA does.

Leger said that 89% of Canadians are at least moderately confident in the food system, largely because they trust the systems put in place to protect them from food borne illness. The rest are concerned about “the food system and the resources available to maintain this system.”

Canadians remember the deadly Listeria outbreak in 2008, but also note “the low number of serious events (that trigger recalls) is due in some part to the strength of the system,” Leger says in a summary circulated by CFIA.

While they generally trust Canadian food safety, confidence “in foreign food safety institutions is low. Canadians believe that food produced in Canada is safer than food produced in other developed countries, though they understand that imported foods must meet the same Canadian standards as domestic foods before they can be sold in Canada.”

Much of the trust in domestic foods comes from “high levels of confidence in Canadian farmers and the government of Canada itself. Canadians express less confidence in the food production industry,” Leger said.

“Foreign institutions did not receive high levels of confidence, due to the concern that many countries did not have the same regulations or control over the system. As well, Canadians expressed concern about Canada’s ability to verify that proper food safety systems were in fact being used in foreign countries.”

Leger says not many Canadians understand CFIA’s role in ensuring the food supply is safe. “More communication activities would increase awareness and help provide increased levels of confidence in the system.”

Doering’s message is for government to keep it simple when it comes to making long overdue changes to our creaking food regulatory system.

“We urgently need food regulatory reform,” he counsels in a recent article in Food Law. “Major legislative change is a solution looking for a problem.

“Like a bad rash that just won’t go away, talk of major legislative change to Canada’s food regulatory system is back. Various academics, think tanks and consultants seem to think that improvements require major legislative change. “This talk is worse than just a waste of time because it distracts people from focusing on what can and should be done now to reform our food regulatory system,” he adds. “Our legislation is fine — the problem is with our regulations and their implementation and enforcement.”

Doering adds, “No one today thinks the CFIA needs more powers. Nor has anyone articulated a clear rationale for sweeping legislative changes, but that hasn’t stopped this naive obsession with grandly titled food strategies, big plans and half-baked schemes for major legislative change that would create immense legal uncertainty for years to come. We’ve had enough of that already. What we need is a more modest, incremental reform of our food regulatory system — a more conservative approach, if you will.”

He recommends four reforms “that can be done in one year with little or no legislative change.” By Ottawa standards, that’s light speed.

What he advocates are modernizing food additives rules, closer regulatory cooperation with the U.S., more emphasis on expanding trade and less government mucking about in feed and fertilizer regulations.

He could have added that the government should push for closer cooperation and a lot more openness among officials at Health Canada, CFIA, Agriculture Canada and other departments sticking their fingers into the food system.

On additives, Doering says, “There is a clear consensus among regulators and the industry that our sclerotic food regulatory system undermines innovation, investment and competitiveness. Nowhere is this more evident than in how Health Canada regulates food additives. We need to amend the definition of food additive in the regulations, and in the meantime apply a less narrow interpretation of the current definition when dealing with beneficial substances such as phages, bacterial cultures and enzymes.”

Any talk of co-operation with the United States seems to stir up all sorts of dire fears. But there’s a golden opportunity with the Regulatory Co-operation Council “to enhance efficacy and efficiency without compromising food safety,” he says. “We could begin by negotiating to end the need for meat re-inspection that currently creates unnecessary delays and expense while achieving no public policy benefit.”

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz crisscrossing the globe to drum up new customers for Canadian food isn’t enough, Doering says. The government could be doing more to expand exports to grow the Canadian farm and food sectors. “The state can’t do that much more about domestic food safety or imports, but it must do more to facilitate the export of plants, animals and food products. States, not companies, negotiate trade access, and the CFIA should do more with additional resources re-allocated to negotiating technical agreements to facilitate exports.”

The government could reduce the scope of feed and fertilizer regulations without compromising public safety and devote those resources to higher risk areas.

Last but not least, Doering wants big changes at CFIA. The government should “implement administrative redress mechanisms, try again to terminate pre-market approval of meat labels, modernize food fortification policy, and reform meat inspection.”

Remember the KISS approach.

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