U. S. Food Safety Worries Hit Canadian Canola Meal

Salmonella-tainted Canadian canola meal has run into a headwind of American food-safety concerns, a trend that threatens to pressure canola futures during a rapid expansion period for the industry.

Since March, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has refused one Canadian shipment of canola (a variant of rapeseed) and three shipments of canola meal. Top farm commodity companies Cargill, Bunge and Viterra have all seen exports snagged in the tightening U. S. food safety net.

The U. S. food supply has been battered by a series of high-profile outbreaks of illness involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006. Salmonella contamination sickened more than 700 people in 46 states this year, forcing the largest food recall in U. S. history.

The question being asked north of the border more loudly with each blocked meal shipment is why human food safety concerns are punishing the animal feed industry.

“Everybody’s concerned about (food safety) and I think canola meal has been caught up in this,” said JoAnne Buth, president of the Canola Council of Canada. “Canola’s not fed to humans, so you really get caught up in something that has no relevance to consumers.”

But FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan said it’s concerned about the potential for animal feeds to serve as vehicles for transmitting harmful bacteria to humans and other animals.

“When we test product and it has salmonella, it can’t come into the country,” she said. “This has been our position for decades.”

Cows that ingest salmonella shed the bacteria in their feces, some of which can contaminate the meat during slaughter, said David Plunkett of the U. S. non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“This is not a political issue and it’s not a trade issue. It’s a safety issue and the fact this is cattle feed doesn’t change that equation.”

Canadian seed crushers produce 2.5 million tonnes of canola meal annually, worth about $500 million.

Traders of ICE Winnipeg canola futures say the blocked shipments will overhang the market if they continue.

“If they’re going to keep stopping canola meal, all of a sudden you have a lot more of it on your hands,” one trader said.

Particularly frustrating to Canada’s canola industry is the contrast between the FDA’s zero tolerance and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s greater flexibility. The CFIA randomly inspects the finished product at feed mills once processing has reduced any salmonella levels rather than checking the raw meal or seed, said an industry source.

The Canadian agency also is considered more hesitant to impose restrictions like the FDA’s requirement of extra testing for blocked exporters.

“It could be as simple as (the FDA) saying, ‘I’ve got one (contaminated) seed in a million seeds, therefore it’s adulterated, therefore it’s blocked,’” the source said.

Canada’s crushing industry is urging the FDA to ease its policy in recognition that salmonella is ubiquitous.

That’s not a winnable position, some say.

“May the force be with them,” said Dr. William Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at University of Minnesota. “To argue against regulation whose name (zero tolerance) itself conveys public health protection is an uphill battle.”

An alternative approach is for the crushing industry to demonstrate it can manage salmonella risk, perhaps with greater traceability, said Hueston, a veterinarian and epidemiologist.

The industry is looking at improving plant standards, an expensive – but not guaranteed – solution. Viterra says its shipment was uncontaminated when it crossed the border, which suggests it contracted salmonella en route to the customer.

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