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Does Canada Need A National Food Standard?

One re commenda -tion flowing from a Commons subcommittee report that resonates with the food industry is the need for a national food inspection standard.

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods and the face of food safety these days, says, “All food for sale in Canada, whether it is produced in federally or provincially inspected plants or imported from other countries, should meet a consistent and enforced national standard. The patchwork of existing regulatory regimes cannot continue.”

In other words, all those small provincially regulated food plants have to be held to the same standard as the big companies Ottawa monitors.

McCain and many others in the food industry have been pushing for a national standard for years and were encouraged when the idea was endorsed by the report of the Commons food safety subcommittee in mid-June.

However Ronald Doering, a veteran food law expert and former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says it can’t be done. Under the constitution, the federal government cannot regulate food plants that don’t ship outside the province in which they are registered. The only way to have a national food inspection standard would be for provinces to voluntarily adopt the existing federal inspection standards, he adds.

“Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t implement the standards because most provinces don’t have sufficient inspectors to check plants up to federal standards,” he points out. “They don’t begin to have the kinds of hands-on inspection that Ottawa does.”

The food safety subcommittee investigated last year’s listeria outbreak that killed 22 and sickened more than 50. It was traced to Maple Leaf Foods deli meats.

“We need much stricter rules than in the past and they have to be the same for small plants as well as large ones,” said Jim Laws, president of the Canadian Meat Council in an interview.

The federal and provincial agriculture ministers will hold their annual meeting next month and Laws hopes they will finally approve a plan on a common food safety standard for the country that has been under discussion for the last decade.

The Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition, which represents producers, processors and consumers, wants a national standard to include internationally accepted food safety standards. “An integrated and consistent national approach will make a substantial contribution to food safety in Canada,” says executive director Albert Chambers.

He also welcomes the report’s recognition that food safety is a shared responsibility among farmers, processors, retailers and consumers. “We need more investment by government and industry in food safety.”

Robert de Valk, executive secretary of the Canadian Associat ion of Regulated Importers, endorses the national standard proposal as well as a call by the subcommittee for better communications between federal and provincial food safety and public health officials in the event of another incident such as the listeria outbreak.

McCain notes Maple Leaf supported the committee’s call for a comprehensive review of resources of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency “recognizing that there must be sufficient inspectors to ensure compliance with tough new standards, and trained to conduct sophisticated root cause investigation of test results to identify potential risks.”

He also says the two levels of government should act faster in the face of a “proven food safety risk, whether through increased intergovernmental and agency co-ordination or through accelerated testing and expansion of laboratory capacity.”

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