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Federal food laws face overhaul

The Harper government is putting the finishing touches to a major revamp of federal food laws to make processors and manufacturers more responsible for food safety while inspectors focus on the risky segments of the business.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is expected to present the legislation, known unofficially as the Food Act, to Parliament sometime this spring.

Officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have been briefing farm and food organizations about the changes in recent weeks.

Participants in those briefings say that the legislation will consolidate four key laws covering meat and fish inspection, consumer packaging and labelling and agriculture standards into one. The CFIA is trying to position itself as a consumer protection agency although it will retain a key role in helping Canadian farm and food exports be accepted in foreign markets.

The agency will retain the wide array of regulations established under the existing acts. The inspectors who enforce them will become responsible for monitoring food safety plans for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and other foods instead of specializing in one commodity.

CFIA has been mulling such a change for years as a way to deliver more efficient and effective food safety. The legislation will authorize higher financial penalties for food safety violations as well as a process for appealing decisions by inspectors.

One source says creating a separate food law will avoid the criminal code provisions that are found in the Food and Drug Act and that will give CFIA more latitude to respond to problems.

The government has toyed with a new food safety regime since 2008 as part of its Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan. Legislation was introduced, but never pushed forward. Attempts to overhaul CFIA practices under the former Liberal government also failed to pass. The report on the deadly 2008 listeria outbreak called for changes in federal food safety laws and that finally forced the government’s hand.

Many of the proposed changes will be acceptable to processors because the food safety system will be streamlined and become more consistent. However, the union representing the bulk of CFIA’s food inspectors says the proposals are reckless and dangerous.

While food safety in Canada is generally considered to be good, government and industry officials have long agreed it could make better use of modern food technologies. CFIA hopes to capture some of these best practices and modern food safety control systems, says documents distributed during the briefings.

“The government’s guiding approach is to prevent problems in the first place, target the highest-risk products and respond quickly if problems do happen,” they say. Industry, governments and consumers all have a role to play in food safety. The government has already announced that all food importers will have to be licensed.

The proposed changes will enable the agency to better tackle deceptive practices, tampering and hoaxes and certify the safety of food exports. They will also pave the way for more effective use of traceability to pinpoint problems in the food supply chain.

The government has already introduced amendments to the Food and Drugs Act to speed up safety assessments of new food products. The documents say the new approach will reduce the regulatory burden on food companies improving their international competitiveness and ability to protect the domestic food supply.

The legislation will prohibit the sale of already recalled foods as well as anything that violates existing food safety laws. It will also spell out a common set of powers that CFIA inspectors work under rather than the differing rules of the existing statutes. That should also ease confusion among food companies about what they have to do to meet federal requirements.

The CFIA has wanted to end its involvement in actions that aren’t related to food safety, but will retain responsibility for the laws on seeds, fertilizers, health of animals and plant protection. Observers say that 90 per cent of the laws administered by CFIA have nothing directly to do with food safety, but have tremendous commercial importance.

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