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Editor’s Take: Lack of leadership on Food Safety Act leads to limbo

On June 11, 2009 Gary Doer was contemplating his pending exit from provincial politics, Barack Obama had less than six months under his belt as president of the United States and Stephen Harper was still nearly two years away from receiving his first majority mandate.

In popular culture, Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” was burning up the country charts, the comedy blockbuster “The Hangover” was in theatres and reality television was at its peak.

That’s also the day that the third session of the 39th Legislature of the Province of Manitoba passed The Food Safety and Related Amendments Act in an effort to streamline and modernize food processing in the Keystone province.

However, that piece of legislation has remained in legal limbo ever since, unproclaimed into law and with no legal effect. There were some consultations held to establish the regulations that would enforce the act, but nothing ever seemed to come of them.

Meanwhile, an already complex food production system became even more complex. Consumers wanted new products, or old products that were new again. Local food became of interest to many, as did unique products with a special story, unusual flavour or other attributes.

Small food processors are an important rural economic engine. A report from the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University notes it’s a major source of economic activity and job creation. And a major finding of the study was the need to “… realize growth potential in niche and specialty products… “

This market shift should have seen the flowering of local business opportunities and employment, but as our Geralyn Wichers reports on the cover of our FarmIt Manitoba section in the Nov. 28 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator, it’s been anything but.

Instead, food product producers and regulators alike have been thrust into a situation that bears a stronger resemblance to the late novelist Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 than a functional regulatory system.

For those unfamiliar with this groundbreaking novel of the Second World War, a character who is a military psychiatrist invokes the term to explain why any bomber pilot requesting mental evaluation to be declared insane (and therefore avoid the insanely dangerous missions that were daily routine) had just proven his own sanity.

In subsequent years, it’s become shorthand for “a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations,” to quote one definition.

Examples abound, such as this: you need to get a job, but all the jobs require experience, which you can’t get without getting a job.

When it comes to Manitoba food products produced in places other than gleaming high-priced and high-volume factories, it means proving they’re safe. But proving they’re safe often, in the eyes of regulators, means producing them in the familiar old way. In the case of many of these products, that will destroy exactly what makes them unique and highly prized by the new-age consumer.

But that’s just one side of this story. The other side is the story of the provincial civil servants, charged with the responsibility of approving the production of food products. Consider their view of this situation.

They’re presented with a flood of interest from small processors. Frequently, these processors want to create products that have been traditionally produced elsewhere, sometimes for very long periods of time, with no ill effect. But they’re new products to this jurisdiction and there are rules to be followed locally that may not mesh with them.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to come up with common-sense rules and interpretations of the law. But where’s the incentive? Why would they stick their neck out, endanger their livelihood and potentially endanger consumers? Or be blamed for it, even though food recalls are plentiful within the conventional system too.

Throw breaking new regulatory ground into the mix and we can all guess who’s going to be tossed under the bus if there’s trouble.

Perhaps department officials would be more willing if there was any indication they’d be supported by the province’s political leaders, but there’s scant evidence that would be forthcoming.

After all, the new and improved act that was intended to change the landscape has endured a decade of bipartisan neglect. Clearly, neither of the province’s major parties is interested in wading into this legislative and regulatory void to clear up the confusion.

But that’s exactly who should be on the hook for this mess.

Our elected politicians are the ones with the authority to empower civil servants with a regulatory mandate. They have the responsibility to implement policy that supports entrepreneurship without compromising public safety.

It’s time to stop dithering and get on with it.

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