The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is one of the cornerstones of food safety in Canada.
Federal inspectors monitor meat and food processing plants, feed mills, and even farms. But beyond what we tend to hear in the media about inspections, the CFIA has much larger responsibilities, some of which need to be separated from the agency’s number one priority of food safety.
For example, CFIA staff head up the responses to disease outbreaks in animals and plants, including the current bovine tuberculosis outbreak in Alberta. They manage import and export permits for everything from animals and embryos, to steaks, cereals, and salads. The CFIA also handles food labeling issues, when a company starts making claims they shouldn’t (as I covered here).
For many years, the CFIA was part of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada portfolio. In 2013, that changed. A few outbreaks at meat plants, tied with the government’s will to create ‘clearer focus and collaboration’ (their words,) led the federal Conservatives to make the CFIA the responsibility of the Health Minister, instead of the Agriculture Minister.
Things start to get confusing, though, when you ask who is responsible for what.
Take the Prime Minister’s mandate letters to his ministers as an example. The Ministers of Health, Agriculture, and Science, as well as Innovation, are all listed by the CFIA. But when you read their mandate letters, not one of them mentioned the CFIA by name.
So is the agency a priority for anyone? The CFIA’s website clearly states the agency is the responsibility of the Minister of Health, who is Jane Philpott. However, there is no mention of shared responsibilities or any involvement from the other three, including the minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Not good enough, I say.
While Philpott’s department — Health Canada — should be responsible for food inspections and ensuring the safety of the food products for Canadians, I do not believe that under today’s structure the CFIA is adequately supporting Canada’s agriculture and agri-food sector. It is why the CFIA, along with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency and the Veterinarian Drug Directorate, which are also part of Health Canada, need a serious shake-up.
Here are a few issues:
When a food labeling complaint comes in, someone at CFIA sends it to the region where the complaint originated and then a local officer handles it. That officer is usually responsible for inspections, but takes on a marketing and information role in these situations.
It doesn’t always go well. On one of my first complaints to the CFIA over a wheat product labeled as non-GMO (which is misleading, since there isn’t any GMO wheat for sale), this lack of understanding was clear when the officer handling told me, “I have determined from our Canadian Food Inspection Agency Plant Protection Specialists that Canadian grown wheat is NOT genetically engineered, however GMO wheat is offered for sale as it is grown to an extent in the U.S. and some other countries, therefore the claim does not require the clarification statement.” She went on to encourage Canada’s industry not to adopt GMO wheat, saying it was an interesting topic and hope Canada remains GMO (free) for domestic wheat, because she thought there would be a huge market advantage for foreign trade in exchange for “putting up with a few weeds.”
Putting up with a few weeds? Clearly her training was not strong in genetic engineering, pesticide use, or any type of agronomy. I wonder, if I hadn’t been aware of wheat seed development and corrected her, would anything have happened? I’ve made several complaints since. Most take eight to 12 months to get resolved.
My take? People who are meant to be inspecting the food chain for systems and procedure safety are being put out of their realm in order to deal with marketing gimmicks. These are two very different roles and need very different people.
When it comes to on-farm inspections and disease control, Canadians’ health is certainly of concern in some outbreaks, but more often than not it comes down to animal health and quelling fears of international customers. No one wants a closed border. However, when staffing levels at the CFIA were tightening up through the last government, I heard numerous accounts of semen and embryos not being able to be exported, or health certificates not being completed, simply because they were behind in paperwork. The industry lost money. Our own animal genetics businesses were put at a disadvantage because they were forced to take a back seat.
And I wonder what else takes a back seat.
Could our industry be more competitive if the CFIA was split into two? One for health, the other for industry? One part stays with Health Canada, while Agriculture Canada takes back the mission of keeping agriculture competitive and business running smoothly? Because, let’s face it, as departmental budgets continue to get tighter, agriculture will continue to be the loser, simply because the priority at Health Canada, as it should be, is the health of Canadians. But since Agriculture Canada’s mandate is to improve the sector, shouldn’t they take back some of the key responsibilities?
Here’s where we start. Pesticide assessments and veterinarian drugs should be folded into a new Agriculture Inspection Agency, while the CFIA, under Health Canada maintains the last step inspection before a product hits consumer shelves, whether that be in meat processing, import inspection certificates for produce, or others.
This “Agriculture Inspection Agency” would take on the role of what Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada should be focusing on — building a strong agriculture industry to compete nationally and internationally. The agriculture department would take control of disease outbreak responses, and administer export and inspection certificates on everything from seed to semen. The buck would stop with the Agriculture Minister, with input being provided from the Standing Committee on Agriculture.
Agriculture in Canada has powerful opportunities in today’s world. We need to be ready to deliver. This isn’t the Health Minister’s top priority, nor should it be. It’s time to clear up the priorities for the CFIA and return the files holding back Canadian agriculture to the agriculture minister and the agriculture department.