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

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen Welland, ON

Let me just interject and add to the question, because I'm going to run out of time.

If I'm hearing you correctly, you're telling me that from your perspective, from CFIA's perspective—I don't want to personalize this, Dr. Evans—recommendation seven is now checked off and complete.

Is that the answer I'm hearing?

9:25 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

I guess my short answer to that is that CFIA was asked...because the determination of the review, as it related to the resourcing side, was done third-party. It was removed from CFIA to ensure that there was a very transparent, credible exercise done.

So we generated the numbers that we had, in-house, and our calculations were then provided to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who let a third-party contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers, who determined that the methodology and the figures that we provided, from their perspective, fully met the expectation and were credible numbers with respect to the resource needs for the CVS program.

Obviously, with respect, I would never say, in any situation with Weatherill, that we should ever say it's done. I think food safety says we don't stop, we don't say we've finished. We have to continue to improve on a day-to-day basis. Weatherill, to me, is more an effort for us to say, taking into account Weatherill, we will complete the actions that were asked of us, but they should continue to inform us: they should be evergreen. I don't think we should ever say the check mark is done and we don't do that work anymore. It requires us to continue do that work on an ongoing basis in order to ensure that the food safety system continues to evolve with respect to the risks that are out there.

With respect to the question from the member on the issue of audits, yes, we are in the process now of updating our website with audits that have been conducted of other jurisdictions. As I said in my other remarks, the reality of globalization of food is that it is a team sport. It does require us to work with the United States. We take into account and share the information of audits that the U.S conducts in third countries, we take into account and share the information with the European Union in terms of their audit group out of Dublin and the work they do in third countries, and we share the work that we do in third countries with those groups, as we do with Australia, New Zealand, and a number of others.

Again, we do believe we are getting a very good level of information, not only in terms of equivalence of systems internationally for inspections but also in getting very up-to-date information from multiple sources that complement the work that we do directly.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you.

Mr. Lemieux.

9:25 a.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thanks very much, Chair.

Thank you for being here today.

I want to highlight an assessment that was contained in a report on OECD countries. There's a quote in there about Canada, that it was “one of the best-performing countries” in the 2010 food safety performance world ranking study, and that its “overall grade was superior”. This was a report on OECD countries, and it recognized Canada's strong performance.

I think part of the equation has to do with the number of inspectors, but I think that's only part of the equation. It's easy for the opposition to focus on that because you're talking numbers here. We never really get a suggestion as to what the ideal number is from them, but that's what they focus on.

I actually think the inspectors are part of the equation; behind them is a system of food safety, which consists of processes, sub-processes, to ensure that food is safe for Canadians.

I'm wondering if you could elaborate on what's behind the inspectors and some of the changes that have been made, and how this is serving Canadians with respect to food safety.

Could you talk about some of the processes and sub-processes?

9:25 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you very much, honourable member.

Mr. Chairman, again, I have testified at this committee on multiple occasions, and I'm firm in my view—a view that has been reinforced for me by experts in Canada and beyond—that the food safety is about a system. It's not about a single inspection point in a broader context. You cannot test and inspect your way to food safety because of the nature of food production.

In backing up our front-line inspection staff, we do recognize at the CFIA that food production doesn't start at processing. Food production starts with the ecosystem, it starts at the farm, it requires stewardship at all levels of the production system. Food safety is about a culture, and that culture does require us, as CFIA, to make sure that what we are doing in terms of integrating our animal health observation programs, in terms of disease, antimicrobial monitoring, those types of programmings, our biologics programming, that they link very closely to food safety outcomes.

Similarly, on the plant health side it requires that we are very much cognizant of the contribution of vegetable protein to the food supply and that we look very closely, whether it's at issues of dioxins or aflatoxins or vomitoxins, so that it also becomes very much a part of a food safety outcome. Those go beyond the individual inspection that might take place when an animal or plant is transformed into food.

Equally around that, and I think highlighted in the OECD comparative, was the recognition that Canada has a regulatory framework that is robust. It covers a broad range of commodities. We acknowledge up front from regulatory modernization, legislation modernization, that is work we continue to do because we want to stay in a leadership role at the international level. We want to ensure we have the tools and necessary authorities to protect Canadians in the most appropriate way.

The report also talked very positively about the food recall system in Canada, and the level of traceability that we've started to implement in this country. While there's more that can be done, Canada has made significant investments in traceability, and in the area of the food recall area, again there is recognition that we are active in the marketplace. We don't wait for human health issues to arise in order to start a recall process. We have mechanisms in place that through either industry information or our regulatory oversight could also trigger recall activities. We can trigger activities based on complaints, or we can base it on third-party information, again coming back to that international collaboration or teamwork that suggests if there is a recall in another jurisdiction, or information that comes to our attention, that it can be dealt with effectively.

I would give two very classic examples of that. One is melamine in China, which affected significant dairy supply, particularly infant formulas in China, and led to hospitalization of tens of thousands of infants in the Chinese circumstance. Our relationship both with China and New Zealand, who was intimate to the commercial side of that detection, gave us advance warning that there was a potential issue out there. Based on that information alone, Canada took a forefront lead in terms of developing the test methods necessary to be able to test dairy products in our laboratories in Calgary and our food labs across the country. Those test methods became the international standard for testing for that work.

So again, full credit to our science group, which gave us the tools necessary to ensure that Canadians were not negatively impacted by the melamine scare, which did affect other countries beyond China, but not Canada.

The second very concrete example would be the contamination of the animal feed supply in Belgium several years ago with dioxins, as a result of oils from transformers inadvertently being added, through the recycling program, into animal feeds. That created a significant problem for Europe because of the eggs and meat and other products, particularly dairy products, derived from the animals fed those feeds.

Again, our relationship with the EU and early heads-up border controls ensured that no Canadians were ever exposed to the dioxin issues with the product imported from Europe.

It was not a popular decision, I can assure you. The timing of that outbreak.... It was in the spring of that year, just before Easter, and a number of major chocolate producers in Canada lost their supply of milk for chocolate products.

Again, those are the types of decisive actions that are part of the system that protects Canadians. When information comes forward, risk decisions are taken, and action follows immediately.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

If I can, I'll just follow up on those. Those are two excellent examples, but there's another one that's more current as well. Saputo, as you know, has done a major recall of cheese. I'd like to know whether the system worked in that case. The Saputo recall is reaching into many different provinces. It affects a whole product line.

Did the system work in the case of the Saputo recall?

9:30 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Absolutely. Obviously, changes were incorporated into Canada in response to the tragic issues of 2008, even in advance of the Weatherill report, as to how we ourselves and well as the private sector undertake to surveil both the environment and the end product.

The trigger on the current recall, in fact, was CFIA testing of end product in a sandwich combination on the east coast as part of that programming, and we did detect listeria in the sandwich product. Obviously there was a lot of concern at the outset because of the ham and cheese component of this. Was it a meat issue? Was it a dairy issue?

We were able to demonstrate very clearly that it was not the meat side of the equation of the sandwich but in fact the cheese component, which led us back to the scenario with the company in Quebec. We were able to isolate the potential area of contamination to one line of production in their massive undertaking. We were able, with the company, to ensure that the production ceased while we carried out a more targeted listeria investigation.

The trace-outs from that, as you say, have been quite extensive. It is one of the largest cheese manufacturers in Canada. Their level of distribution or penetration of the market is significant. The challenge, again, when we come back to the issue of traceability, remains that the tracing of the primary product has led us into a number of secondary and tertiary suppliers. So people who manufacture these types of sandwiches, major grocery chains that put out deli trays, and those sorts of things do require us to be vigilant, and that's what we're doing. We've had great support from the company.

I can't say enough about the support from the provinces, but that is also part of the food safety system in Canada. It's not just CFIA. It's not just the federal government. We have provincial people out there also helping us to verify the effectiveness of the recalls as they're currently being played out.

9:35 a.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Very good. Thank you.

9:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you.

I'll move to Mr. Tonks for five minutes.

9:35 a.m.

Liberal

Alan Tonks York South—Weston, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you to the witnesses for being here. I found it very educating. I don't sit on this committee, but certainly I can appreciate the challenge that the committee has and that you share in terms of protecting the public.

I'd like to follow up on the line of questioning that Mr. Allen pursued. I was given the Weatherill report as background information. I'll tell you, there's a word that gets everybody's attention around this place, and that's “audit”, and the role of the auditor. As soon as you mention that, everybody responds in a Pavlovian way. They know this is serious stuff.

Mr. Evans, you've used the term “review” with respect to the Weatherill report. I'm going to quote recommendation seven of the report:

To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the [CFIA] should retain third-party experts to conduct a resources audit. The experts should also recommend required changes and implementation strategies. The audit should include analysis of how many plants an inspector should be responsible for and the appropriateness of rotation of inspectors.

It calls for a third-party review, and it does use that word: audit.

In terms of the review that was done of the CFIA report on the CVS program, it stated a very important caveat:

This review does not constitute certification or guarantee the accuracy of CFIA's calculation since the review did not involve, for example, either of the following:

Detailed testing, analysis or validation...of data...

Technical or other assessments of CVS tasks in terms of appropriateness of...frequency, or duration [of interventions and so on].

Those are inspector-significant caveats.

I guess my question is can the public be absolutely satisfied and secure, given that there are still those caveats? In my experience, it's the on-the-ground inspectors and the inspections that make the difference with respect to what falls between the cracks.

I do appreciate very much, as I'm sure the committee does, the citing of improvements that have been made and changes that have been made--for example, in the relationship with border security and other issues. I'd like you to have the opportunity to give a response to the question in general but also with regard to what it means to the public.

9:35 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

I can't say with enough passion, I think, how much we value the contribution of this committee to our efforts to ensure food safety for Canadians. We also recognize the passion, commitment, and professionalism of our front-line staff and what they do each and every day--each and every shift--to deliver food safety for Canadians.

With respect to recommendation seven, I think it's clear that from our perspective a comprehensive approach was undertaken. With respect to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report and the statement that the member has shared with us, it is a professional audit firm and is required to identify the scope of the work they undertake to do, which, in this case, was an independent review of CFA's assumptions, calculation methodology, representations, and results. PWC declared in the report that they found CFA estimates to be sound.

So PricewaterhouseCooper did indicate in the report, very eloquently, that the methodologies, calculations, assumptions, and representations were fully sound within the parameters of their expertise allowed to assess.

Reference was made to the fact that the appropriateness of the frequency and duration of the CVS test was not allocated to PricewaterhouseCooper. In fact that was given to a third-party international panel of two individuals, one from the United States and one from Canada, with, combined, over 50 years of international experience in food inspection methods.

These two individuals wrote a report commissioned by us on the technical aspects of CVS. Each panellist came to the conclusion—and the report was part of the government's report on food safety progress—that CVS is a sound system, and that it has made a significant improvements in inspection.

There were some recommendations given to us to provide greater flexibility for inspectors, so that if they were to find something they would be able to park the task they were doing and address the emergent issue immediately. We have taken this on board as part of our continuous improvement of the system.

They felt that, overall, the time allocations and descriptions of tasks were appropriate. They also recognized that a single window of time is not necessarily an appropriate measure. You may have a plant with 15 production lines or a plant with a single production line, and there have to be allowances made for the complexity of the production environment. Our system allows us to do that with the tasks that are currently described.

The third element we talked about was a front-line inspector input carried out by CFIA, with the full support and participation of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. This would involve a field assessment of CVS, in light of the views of the staff and the union. Those three collectively, we believe, met the intent of Ms. Weatherill's request. We believe that Canadians can have confidence in the system as it's currently being delivered, and that they can rely on these recommendations to continue to drive improvement in the future.

9:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Your time has expired.

Mr. Shipley.

December 7th, 2010 / 9:40 a.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

My thanks to the witnesses for coming in.

We're talking about imported produce this morning, but a number of factors come into it. I had the opportunity and the privilege of being on the subcommittee for food safety.

One of the things that came up after that--actually, from one of the opposition people--was that, well, we have truckloads of produce coming in from the States, they've been destined for inspection, they're going through the border, nobody's inspecting them, and so now what we have is suspect produce, I guess, that is not being checked that was determined to be.

First, is that true?

Second, I'll be honest with you; I was astounded to find out that prior to that subcommittee--members on this side made the recommendation that this be changed--importers who sent food into Canada were given 72 hours' notice that their truck would be inspected. I couldn't believe that was still happening. So we made the recommendation that it should be random.

That's my second question: is that in place, and if not, why not? And when will it go into effect?

9:40 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member.

Mr. Chair, I'll answer the first portion, and I'll ask Cameron Prince if he can address the second issue on the 72 hours' notice to adjustments.

With respect to produce entering from the United States, again, I think it's important for us to restate that we work very closely with CBSA in managing the import issue at the border.

With respect to produce coming into Canada, we base our risk-based determinations of inspections based on what we know about the source. We've talked about the leafy green circumstance in California and programs that have been put in place to ensure that contamination with E. coli doesn't happen again, as we saw several years ago. That is a program that is both industry-delivered and also oversighted and verified by USDA full-time inspectors. We have assurances from that. We also audit and verify that program at specific frequencies ourselves to demonstrate that program is operating effectively.

We have the pre-border aspects that do take place. We talked about the fact that over the past year we had 62 different border blitzes, where all products coming in at those border points were examined to make sure they were in compliance with Canadian requirements. We carried it out over 480 targeted inspections based on various commodity combinations of risk in the marketplace and across this country last year on products coming in, primarily from the United States.

We also have destination inspection in Canada that also allows us to do further sampling in the produce area. We support industry both in terms of quality of product but also safety of product with sampling programs that occur there. I would not sit here and say that every truckload is stopped at the border and inspected physically, but we have a system in place of oversight based on international science-based standards for sampling that we believe provides a high level of confidence that the products coming into this country do meet the domestic standards we have in place, which are designed to protect Canadians.

Cam, I would ask if you could address the issue of the recommendation from the committee on the 72 hours' notice.

9:45 a.m.

Cameron Prince Vice-President, Operations, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Yes.

Thank you for the question with respect to imported meat procedures.

It is true that in 2009, at that time companies could give notice 72 hours in advance and get clearance on whether their shipment was going to have to be inspected in Canada or not. Based on the recommendations of the food safety subcommittee of this committee, we took action as quickly as we could on that, based on that recommendation.

As of January 4, 2010, no prior notice has been given. In fact, trucks arrive at the border, and we have developed a system with the Canada Border Services Agency where border services officers have the information on their screen right at the booth at the border and can direct that truck to inspection or to the skip lot, which means it doesn't have to be inspected. Almost 20% of shipments are actually physically inspected at registered plants; the remainder have a very good product history and are cleared to go through with certification from the U.S.

Yes, indeed we have put that system in that place. We have had a few glitches with that system, and we are now refining it, making it more automated, making it more modern. We look forward to increasing rigour at the border with respect to meat shipments.