Conservatives block additional scrutiny of food safety bill

Food safety legislation and sweeping changes to the Canadian Grain Commission are being rushed through Parliament with scant opportunity for MPs to consider their implications.

Conservative MPs used their majority on the Commons agriculture committee last week to reject a Liberal call to extend hearings on the Safe Food for Canadians Act and have Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz answer questions on sweeping reorganization of the food inspection practices. The government also refused a request for hearings on other contentious provisions, including changes to the Grains Act, in the omnibus budget bill.

It wasn’t just opposition MPs who were complaining.

As the food safety bill currently stands, some food companies will be forced to relocate to other countries, warned Keith Mussar, vice-president of regulatory affairs of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters and co-chair of the group’s food committee. Many Canadian companies produce for export and the bill as written would make it impossible for them to make some of their products for foreign markets, he said.

Leaving matters to the regulatory phase means the industry won’t know what the CFIA is proposing until the regulations are made public, Mussar said. If they are wrong, it takes almost two years to change them.

“We’re better off to get it right at the start,” he said.

Both the Liberals and NDP support the bill, but will present amendments to fine tune it.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture also wants Parliament to carefully study the complex provisions of the food safety bill.

While CFA supports the basic thrust of the legislation, CFA first vice-president Christian Lacasse cited six areas of concern, including how farmers will be regulated, requirements for livestock traceability, and protection of confidential business information.

“We urge you to take the time to explore this bill in depth and to seek answers to the questions that we and other witnesses have raised,” he told the agriculture committee. “This is important and timely legislation. But we don’t need to rush it through.”

Ron Versteeg, vice-president of Dairy Farmers of Canada, also offered suggestions to improve the legislation. He also said it was vital for the government and CFIA to fully consult with farm and food industry groups about the regulations.

“Anything that undermines consumer confidence in our products is not in our interest,” he said. “The dairy industry has many programs to ensure the safety of our products.” 

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