When the CFIA comes to call



There are likely few sentences that strike fear in the hearts of livestock producers quite like, “The CFIA called. They’re coming for a meeting.”

That’s exactly what happened here last week, and, admittedly, my first inclination was to freak out. Fearing the worst (an audit on two days notice is the stuff of nightmares), I had a million questions — but my partner assured me that this was not an audit, but a meeting, regarding existing traceability regulations for sheep.

I was skeptical, as it seemed overly kind that a Canadian Food Inspection Agency official would simply meet with us to discuss current regulations, but the morning meeting, held at our kitchen table, was surprisingly painless. The inspector really did just want to bring us up to speed on the existing rules, and asked for verification, where applicable, that we were following the rules to the best to our ability.

What became very apparent in the meeting, however, was that my partner and I — he serves on our provincial sheep board of directors and I work in agriculture media — were far more up to speed on the current rules than many of the farmers this inspector has met with. And that’s a pretty large problem, as the current rules are set for an update sometime in the next year or so, and what’s coming is  much more involved than the current regulation.

Though not stress-free, getting up to speed on our responsibilities as livestock owners is vital for our industry, and Canada’s food industry as a whole. I know there are those that find any government involvement too much or get bogged down in what can feel like mountains of paperwork, but rules are rules, and in the event of a disease outbreak or food safety issue, we need to be able to trace out from the problem.

That said, if livestock producers are holding up their end of the deal in doing their darndest to meet all traceability, recording, and reporting requirements, our industry groups, administrations, and regulators need to be doing their best, too. For sheep, at least, there are some glaring communication gaps and deficiencies. For traceability specifically, you might be surprised to learn that we use the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency’s database interface, designed for cattle but considered “good enough” for sheep.

I’m over-simplifying somewhat, as the sheep industry is fragmented nationally and the issue of traceability, its communication, and implementation are a hotly contested issue. As a new producer in Ontario, I received the bulk of my regulatory information from my provincial group — it turns out, it’s a national organization that’s responsible for that (Canadian Sheep Federation). I had questions about scrapie surveillance and testing, also the responsibility of CSF, that the inspector did send information on, but realistically I should have had that information prior to this point.

What it comes down to is this: new, more involved traceability requirements are coming for sheep producers. Currently, many sheep producers aren’t fully aware of what’s required (for recording and reporting — uptake on RFID tagging is good, most would agree). The communication, administration responsibilities, and database, however, are sorely lacking. To me, that’s an opportunity for a re-boot, to leapfrog the technology ahead. But instead of creating a traceability system that functions with true chain-of-custody recording (hello, blockchain!), we’re going to ask every farmer to just keep writing more and more information down and keep it for five years.

Our industry can do better, and our industry deserves better.

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