Canada: New independent food inspection agency needed: Expert

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By Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News ServiceMay 4, 2009



OTTAWA The federal government should establish an independent food safety agency reporting directly to Parliament because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is failing consumers, a leading food-safety expert on Monday told parliamentarians probing the listeriosis outbreak.

Sylvain Charlebois, co-author of the 2008 Food Safety Performance World Ranking and business professor at the University of Regina, blasted the CFIA's "dual mandate" of protecting the public and assessing risk within the agri-food industry.

"The CFIA is inherently hardwired to assess risks and contain threats," Charlebois told the special hearings, saying a reconfigured CFIA should stick to working with industry to promote international trade.

But Charlebois also cautioned the lawmakers sitting on the special panel investigating the state of food safety in Canada, convened after last summer's deadly listeriosis outbreak traced to contaminated meat, about the "overregulation syndrome" that has "overtaken our food safety agenda."

The "epidemics and their tragic outcomes can be minimized only by policies that address the complex, interlinked natures of our food economies. The 'let's inspect more' mantra is much too simple," Charlebois testified.

"I can honestly say that it is now less challenging to build a hospital than it is to start a slaughtering plant in Canada. Regulations, both provincial and federal, are unbearable. Canada doesn't need more regulation, although it needs a different approach to food safety."

Currently, Health Canada develops guidelines related to food policy, while the CFIA, for which the minister of agriculture is responsible, is tasked with inspection and enforcement.

An independent food safety agency that "focuses solely on consumer concerns" and reports directly to Parliament would not be stuck between the "two silos" of Health Canada and the agriculture ministry.

The CFIA has faced criticism of its double mandate ever since the former Liberal government under Jean Chretien created it in 1997, but concerns over the practicality of ensuring the safety of the food supply while charged with facilitating exports for the agri-food industry have grown louder in recent months.

Ronald Doering, who served as the CFIA's president from 1997 to 2002 and is now a partner at the law firm Gowlings Lafleur Henderson, on Monday characterized as "silly" Charlebois's proposal to "hive off food safety" to a body reporting to Parliament instead of to a minister.

"The principle consensus all around was if you're going to reorganize how you're going to do food safety, animal heath and plant protection, you've got to make sure you've got accountability right. All parties agreed that we needed to have the agency report directly to a minister in the traditional way, and there could be no doubt that the minister the agency reported to would be accountable for its work," Doering said of the negotiations to create the CFIA.

Doering also said it's "simplistic" to argue the CFIA's dual mandate presents a problem for consumers. Rather, he said Canadians are well-served by putting "the whole food chain in a single enforcement agency, so the CFIA is responsible for seeds, feed, fertilizers, all plant health, all animal health, all food, all commodities because they are all connected."

Besides, added Doering, the system isn't broken.

"The Canadian food, animal health and plant regulatory system is admired around the world. The idea we can export to a 100 countries food, animal or plants without inspection has to something about the credibility of the regulatory agency."




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