The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is sowing confusion and uncertainty among Canadian millers with increased inspections of its plants and products for evidence of fusarium contamination, the Commons agriculture committee has heard.
Derek Jamieson, vice-president of the P&H Milling Group, told the MPs the agency has stepped up its inspections “without any prior consultation or indication on what’s acceptable.” Mills in different regions appear to be under different inspection standards and it can take up to six weeks to learn the results of lab tests. “We’re alarmed about the agency enforcing federal guidelines that don’t exist.”
CFIA seems to be working to a zero-tolerance standard, while Health Canada accepts the industry’s voluntary guidelines of 2.5 per cent fusarium for milling wheat and five per cent for feed wheat. Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian Nat ional Millers Association, said farm groups and the industry have been following the voluntary guideline for wheat and other grains for years and encouraging farm practices that will discourage the presence of the blight.
Despite all the concern at the government level, there’s no evidence of deaths or serious illness connected to the presence of vomitoxin in bakery and cereal products.
Health officials are also worried about ochratoxin that forms in mouldy storage, he added. The concern is with long-term exposure of consumers to naturally occurring toxins in various foods and beverages.
Recently Health Canada and Agriculture Canada agreed to a long-standing industry request for a working group to thoroughly examine the health concerns surrounding fusarium, he added.
“We have to take the time for a rational look into the issue. We should be prepared to take 18 to 21 months to reach the right decision. We need guidelines that are possible to comply with.” They must also recognize the Canadian grain is blended at terminals and in transportation. “We’ll be in serious trouble if the government tries to ban blending.”
Instead of its current compliance push, CFIA should be doing more research into fusarium, he added. CFIA has also agreed to a working group to review its current enforcement action which Harrison described “as making it up as they go along. We’ve been fighting with them on this for years.”
DECLINE IN WHEAT
Geoff Hewson, Saskatchewan vice-president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, said fusarium has become a serious challenge for wheat growers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and is a major factor behind a 40 per cent decline in wheat production in Saskatchewan in the past 15 years.
“What farmers really need is more fusarium-resistant wheat varieties,” he said. Agriculture Canada research has produced some better varieties but it might take a genetically engineered strain to be really effective.
Farmers aren’t opposed to new health standards for fusarium “but we don’t see any need to rush the process under a haphazard approach. We should keep the existing standard until we’ve completed our review and whatever we do should be equivalent to the United States because of the trade with our neighbour.”
CUTTING FARM INCOMES
Nigel Smith, youth president of the National Farmers Union, said fusarium is an issue around the world and bad outbreaks can cut farm incomes by 40 per cent. “Obviously, scientists and farmers need more knowledge about both fusarium and vomitoxin. The Canadian studies on the subject all call for more research. The problem is that Canadian researchers have been hamstrung by insufficient funding, hiring freezes, and generally poor working conditions.”
The fusarium problem and the fusarium research problem serve to highlight a severe crisis within our publicly funded research facilities, he said. “We desperately need better working conditions, better staffing levels of both scientists and support staff, better equipment and facilities and a new commitment to publicly funded and publicly owned research in Canada.”