Evidence of meeting #42 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was products.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Brian Evans  Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Food Safety Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Paul Mayers  Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Cameron Prince  Vice-President, Operations, Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Martine Dubuc  Vice-President, Science, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

9:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you. Your time has expired.

Ms. Bonsant for five minutes.

9:45 a.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC

Thank you very much.

I'd like to get back to chemicals. Some countries allow chemicals which are prohibited in Canada, and the opposite may also be the case.

Earlier on, you said that exporting countries fill out forms to indicate which products had been inspected.

On these same forms, is there a spot that indicates that, in Canada, you are not allowed to use given pesticides or the product will be turned back? Or is it a bit of a catchall form where people can write whatever they like?

9:45 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

I thank the honourable member for the question.

The control around approved products in Canada rests with our colleagues at Health Canada. However, in terms of our oversight responsibility at the CFIA, it focuses on the food product. Canada does not determine what another country might do in terms of the product it chooses to approve; however, for products that are not permitted in Canada, Health Canada, in addition to making their decision, establishes what is called a maximum residue limit.

That maximum residue limit is established even for products that are not permitted in Canada. In essence, it sets the level of, for example, a chemical residue above which there are human health concerns. Our responsibility at the CFIA, through our monitoring program—the chemical residue monitoring program—would be to assess products, including imported products, to assure ourselves that those products do not contain residues above that maximum residue limit.

It is through the maximum residue limits that are established in Health Canada standards that we've provided the controls to assure Canadians that they're not exposed to products that Health Canada does not believe are acceptable in terms of human exposure.

9:45 a.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC

I am asking the question because, recently, someone found glass in a pickle jar imported from India. Is the CFIA stricter towards some countries? Do you carry out the same product inspections for all countries or do you say to yourself, in some countries, the environment is less of a concern than the economy? That is why I was wondering whether you had more reservations towards certain countries.

9:50 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

Most certainly not. We do take a risk-based approach, and so in our risk-based approach we take account of compliance history and areas of prior challenge. In managing those issues, if we see repeated areas of non-compliance, we will work with the country to improve the compliance outcome. At the same time, we will apply here an elevated level of oversight where problems are identified.

I'll use an example. We experienced in Canada an outbreak of disease as a result of a parasite, cyclospora, associated with raspberries. The raspberries that were associated, through our investigation, were identified as coming from Guatemala. We increased our oversight in terms of testing products, but we also undertook a very significant program working directly with Guatemala and producers in Guatemala to institute additional controls at the level of production to minimize the potential that those products could become contaminated with cyclospora, as part of—as Brian has described—a systems approach to providing assurance that Canadians would not be exposed to that particular pathogen.

The same holds for the examples you've mentioned. We have had an issue with glass in pickles. We've acted in terms of those products by undertaking detentions, etc. If that is not an isolated issue...and occasionally a plant will experience problems when they're working with glass; they may have a higher level of breakage than at other times.

But if we see a pattern, we would then work with India, say, around providing in-country assurance before products leave India that this issue has been addressed. This is part of the strategy we normally employ, and this is what we mean by a risk-based approach. Where there is a higher degree of risk, we will place a much greater targeting around that product and hazard combination.

9:50 a.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC

What if the country in question continues and at some point—

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Madame Bonsant, I'm sorry. Your time has expired.

Mr. Hoback.

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

Randy Hoback Prince Albert, SK

Thank you, Chair.

I want to thank you all for coming out this morning. It's great to see you.

You know, I'm never scared of an audit. On my own farm, I used to hire somebody to come in and audit things just to see what I could do to make things better, to do it in a constructive manner. Canadians expect us to go through an audit once in a while and expect us to be looking at new ways and new technologies to make things better.

One area that I'd like to talk about is automated systems. What are you seeing in automated systems that are going to make things easier and better? Could you give me a few examples of that?

9:50 a.m.

Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Food Safety Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member.

Mr. Chair, I would echo that from a CFIA perspective. I would suggest that CFIA is one of the most audited organizations in Canada. Canada is a global supplier of food. We are one of the preeminent suppliers of food at the global market. We are audited by virtually every country that we export to at some level. There's probably not a week that goes by when there is not an audit team from another country here, whether they're looking at the fish program or the seafood program, whether they're looking at the horse meat program or whatever commodities we're involved in exporting.

So we have a lot of third-party external audit that takes place. We're here today because we have a very rigorous internal audit process, which we as management very much value. We do recognize the value of those efforts because they do guide us in terms of continuous improvement. We're not afraid of audit. We think it is very important. It raises both awareness and transparency about what we do and how we do it. We value the inputs of others because we want to be the best we can possibly be.

With respect to new and emerging technologies, I do agree that I think there are significant opportunities in the food safety area around those technologies. Whether they're automated, or even if they're not, certain of those technologies do require assessment processes. Again, some of the non-automated ones we would make reference to are the additives that Health Canada must approve for addition to foods as microbial inhibitors. For the automated side, there are high-pressure packaging opportunities that a number of industries are investing in also as a way of controlling or eliminating bacteria. Certainly there are a number of automated technologies as well in terms of new and sophisticated detection methods.

My colleague Dr. Dubuc can speak to some of the implementation of those technologies within our laboratory system, where we can scan for a wide range of possible contaminants or adulterants with a single sample put-through. Certainly I think the other aspect around some of the automated technologies will also apply to our field staff in terms of new tools that can be brought to their work in the field, in terms of hand-held technologies that allow for rapid analysis of the information that they're seeing, and validation of whether or not there is a risk or not a risk associated with the products they are in fact assessing at that point in time.

I think also we are starting to see at the global level some of the automated technologies related to tracking and tracing: the ability of radio frequency tags and the ability of animals to be tracked through an automated system, from their point of tagging through to the point of slaughter, and then the subsequent products that are produced from those animals being tracked as well, right to the level of your steak at a restaurant with a bar code, or in the marketplace, in those areas.

Traceability and those technologies are very much intimate to, I think, public long-term confidence in food. They want to know where their food comes from. In many areas, they want to know the production practices associated with that food as well from social values, so I think we will continue to adopt these technologies into our processing as they continue to emerge, where they've been validated and invaluable. It will in fact give us better food safety outcomes going forward than we can even achieve today.

9:55 a.m.

Conservative

Randy Hoback Prince Albert, SK

Thank you.

I also want to touch on this a little bit. A lot of people don't understand CFIA's role in the export of our goods outside Canada. I'll use the example of blackleg in canola going to China, and how quickly we reacted to that situation and tried to remedy that situation.

Can you just give us an update on the process you use when a situation like that happens? How do you react so quickly?

9:55 a.m.

Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Food Safety Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Dr. Brian Evans

We recognize very much the importance of exports to the sector in Canada. We believe that Canada's reputation, at the global level, is demonstrated by the number of countries that import food products from Canada. They do that based on the quality of what our producers produce. They do it based on the safety of the product and the integrity of the inspection system.

When we run into issues like the blackleg of canola circumstance or other areas, we operate at three levels. It's always based on science. We start with a scientific approach in terms of internationally recognized science standards for management, whether it's for a pest, a disease, or a residue. As a science-based regulatory organization, we think that science has to be part of the equation. It may not be the ultimate and only consideration, but we certainly want a science-based outcome. We try to base our import standards that way, and we hope that the countries will reciprocate because they recognize that we're going to treat them on that basis as well, with respect to international standards.

The second level of engagement, obviously, is with the sector. The impacted sector has a vested interest in wanting to ensure that our undertakings with the country take into account their vital interests. They are able, in many cases, to bring their importers to the table as well, which creates a different environment in terms of how those discussions could take place in the other country. We want to make sure that there is both public and private engagement to resolve these issues to everybody's best satisfaction.

Certainly the other component, and one that, in many circumstances, we're not shy to use either, is the recognition that we need to set, at the very highest level we can possibly achieve, a commitment to resolution that's in both countries' best interests. In that circumstance, we engage with our partners at Foreign Affairs. We make extensive use of our embassies abroad and the ambassadors abroad. As I say, through funding we've received over the last several years, and by having CFIA professional staff embedded in certain countries, we've been able to build positive relationships with other countries so that they have an understanding of what we're doing and they understand the integrity of what we're doing for their benefit. And they give us insight into the real impediments that exist in the other countries.

At the same time, we very much value the opportunity that DFAIT and others bring to the table in terms of when they may make a recommendation for more political involvement, from Canada's perspective. Again, I think it's very value-added: in any circumstances where there are strong political, science, and economic interests, we will get resolution of those issues much more quickly.

9:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

Now we'll go to Mr. Eyking, for five minutes.

9:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Sydney—Victoria, NS

Thank you, Chair.

The parliamentary secretary was alluding that the opposition was being a little rough on you today. But at the end of day, people have died of listeriosis, and the Auditor General has given a report, so I think it's our obligation to ask tough questions.

My next question is going to be more about our exports, because we focus a lot on imports. It seemed to be, when I was in the vegetable business, that when I shipped cabbage to the States, they never inspected my cabbage if the supply was short. They always inspected it when there was a lot of cabbage. We see it with the potatoes from P.E.I. We even see it now with Christmas trees. When there's a big supply in an area, it seems that inspections are harder or more intense. We see it with the Koreans now with the beef. I think, at the end of the day, their inspectors are becoming a bit of a trade barrier. It's not a food safety issue, many times.

Your mandate is mostly to protect Canadian consumers, but I'm wondering if our CFIA can help our exporters more. You see what's happening in Europe now, where there are no borders between the different countries in Europe when they ship products back and forth. Can we make our border more seamless with the Americans in a way that our regulations are the same? Can you be helping our exporters more by maybe helping them at the front end?

For instance, if there's a load of potatoes in New York that somebody's rejecting down there for a frivolous reason, maybe your inspectors can come in there and say, “Okay, hold 'er, guys, this is unfair”.

I don't know if it's your mandate, but could you be doing more for our people? At the very least—and we don't want to go down that road—I'm wondering if you could say, “You guys want to play the hammer? Okay. Maybe we're going to start stopping a few loads coming in.” I know we're the good boy scouts, and we don't do it like that, but I really think that the others are doing it.

I would like just a couple of short answers, because my colleague here has a short question for you.

10 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

Responding to situations where Canadian exporters experience challenge, we see it as very much a part of our role when those challenges are related to sanitary or phytosanitary measures. In the examples that you describe, we absolutely believe we have a role, because it speaks to the credibility of our system. It speaks to our export certification and related activities, so we feel very much empowered to engage in support of Canadian exporters in those circumstances.

We engage, again as Brian has described, in those three categories. I won't repeat them in the interest of time, but we engage to explain the science and the approach that we've taken. For example, Canada has experienced occasionally, in terms of seed potato exports, instances where the containers are rejected. We don't hesitate in those situations to put technical officials on a plane to engage. If necessary, we'll send inspection staff to go and have our own look, so we can assure the exporter and ourselves of what's at play.

We're not at all shy about engaging our trading partners. They have legitimate rights to raise concerns. We respect those rights, but we will certainly engage with them in terms of ensuring that any decisions taken are legitimate.

10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Mr. Valeriote.