USDA letter on food plant inspection critical of CFIA

The letter published on USDA website resulted from a regular audit of 
Canadian food plants and government facilities

A U.S. audit critical of Canadian meat plants has made headlines nearly two years after the fact, even though the Americans found no food safety problems and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it has addressed concerns noted about its capacity to properly inspect food plants.

When the 2014 report by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service surfaced in a news story March 1, the Canadian agency scrambled to organize a media briefing to point out the U.S. had already accepted its response to the report in nearly a year ago, in May 2015.

The report resulted from a regular audit of Canadian food plants and government facilities conducted that year. It was posted to the USDA website Jan. 20 of this year, but there was never any formal announcement the agency had requested CFIA respond to its concerns by April about “operation or procedural weaknesses related to government oversight, sanitation and microbiological testing.”

“There are no outstanding issues and there was never any impact on trade,” the CFIA said. CFIA could not explain why the Jan. 14 letter was sent to it.

Industry insiders also expressed puzzlement over how the issue has boomeranged many months after the fact.

“The fact that food safety was not compromised is evidenced by the fact that more than 1-1/2 years passed between the time the audit was undertaken and the report was published,” said Ron Davidson, vice-president of the Canadian Meat Council.

Equivalent

The FSIS report ultimately confirmed that Canadian food-processing plants and inspection were equivalent to the U.S. standards, and could continue to export goods to that market, the CFIA confirmed during the media briefing. Officials also noted there was no product contamination associated with any of the U.S. findings, and all of the concerns flagged have been addressed to the satisfaction of the USDA.

All countries that Canada exports food products to regularly inspect Canadian plants. Canadian officials likewise inspect food plants in countries shipping to Canada. Almost always these inspections find some fault but rarely do they have any impact on trade.

Bob Kingston, president of the CFIA inspectors’ union, said the issue is an ongoing problem related to staffing shortages that the federal government has failed to address.

“The American auditors have found the CFIA to be a repeat offender when it comes to poor sanitation in food production establishments,” Kingston said. “The serious issues they have identified are indicators of potential food safety problems that a heightened presence of experienced inspectors could identify, but the CFIA does not have the resources in place to do that.

“These findings are symptomatic of the serious shortage of inspectors,” he added. “This is a red flag that the new government needs to implement its election promise of new investment to shore up frontline food inspection.”

Spending

Last month, the Treasury Board revealed that the previous government cut the CFIA’s budget by $56 million a year as part of its Strategic and Operating Review. In addition, the latest spending estimates forecast a cut to the CFIA’s Food Safety program of $57 million.

Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, also criticized CFIA’s slow response, noting the federal agency appeared to be caught flat footed by the FSIS letter, struggling to explain it when asked about it. It’s also unclear whether the problems identified by FSIS have implications for Canadian consumers, he added.

“Canadian consumers’ concern would be to have high standards for the products they buy. CFIA’s response to this subject matter still seems murky to us,” Whitehurst said.

Food industry officials, who asked not be named because they’re seeking further information, said they were angered by CFIA’s failure to inform them about the FSIS letter in January.

“Safety cannot be inspected into food products,” the Meat Council’s Davidson said. “Foodborne bacteria are not evident by visual inspection. The best assurance of food safety is the adoption of rigorous performance-based procedures, equipment, testing and monitoring which ensure collectively that all food safety requirements are being achieved.”

Canada exports meat products to more than 100 countries including the U.S., Mexico, European Union, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and many others.

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