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 food.

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

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

We will call the meeting to order.

We have witnesses here from the CFIA.

Welcome, Mr. Mayers, Dr. Evans, Mr. Prince, and Ms. Dubuc. I imagine you have some opening remarks.

Dr. Evans.

December 7th, 2010 / 8:45 a.m.

Dr. Brian Evans Chief Veterinary Officer and Chief Food Safety Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Thank you very much.

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and honourable members. It's a pleasure to be with you this morning as we continue to collectively advance Canada's interests in food safety.

My name is Brian Evans. I am the chief food safety officer and chief veterinary officer for Canada with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

With regard to the audit that looked at certain aspects of the management of imported foods, I would like to provide you with an overview and some context.

The audit focused solely on the years of 2005 to 2008. It did not examine front-line inspection activities, as this was not within the scope of this particular audit. The audit assessed the management framework only.

Because audits focus on areas where improvements might be made, it would be tempting for people outside of the audit community to think that the reports reflect on the integrity or quality of the entire program. This is rarely the case, and certainly not the case in this audit.

Food safety is clearly the top priority of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

To provide Canadians with the protection they expect and deserve, we are continuing to look for ways to improve our system. To this end, the CFIA published the findings of our audit on imported food safety.

In response to the interest generated by this report, I want to assure this committee and all Canadians that all food sold in Canada, whether domestic or imported, must comply with the Food and Drugs Act and regulations, and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and regulations.

Simply put, the obligation to provide safe food is no different for food importers than it is for domestic food producers. Under these acts, importers have a responsibility to demonstrate that their food products meet the same high safety standards that Canada has established for domestic food producers. The playing field is level in terms of a food producer's or a food importer’s obligation to sell or distribute safe food.

I was heartened to see in a recent Globe and Mail and Nanos report that a significant percentage of Canadians believe that there is a greater frequency of inspection for imported food than there was 10 years ago. That speaks of a confidence in our inspection regime that I believe is well placed. Agency staff work hard each and every day to earn and maintain that trust.

The audit examined our activities around imported foods from 2005 to 2008. Since that time, in response to the rapid globalization of the food supply, the CFIA has taken decisive action on how we manage this food sector.

With regard to the audit itself, it provided us with valuable information that helped us to make improvements in how we conduct our business. Publishing audit results also provides Canadians with a window into the work we do, and we welcome that. It’s important that our work be transparent to Canadians.

We do not wait for either internal or external results from audits before making improvements to our programs and policies on imported foods. The agency has always been hard at work in this area. We will continue to make changes both now and in the future in response to a dynamic and ever-changing risk environment. Nevertheless, we certainly have used the findings of this audit to fine-tune those plans.

Drawing on $223 million in funding from the food safety action plan, which was announced in budget 2008, the CFIA was already independently working on some of the concerns identified in the audit. This included working on the need for better controls over imported products in the non-federally registered sector, which governs foods such as infant formula, cereals, candy, spices, and seasonings.

The government has enhanced the governance structure for food safety. Indeed, I appear before you for the first time in my new role of Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada. The creation of the CFSO role offers us the opportunity to raise the profile of the food safety work being done at the CFIA and the progress being made on the Weatherill recommendations by the agency and its partners.

One of our key partners, the Canada Border Services Agency, works with us to verify that food safety standards are met. The two agencies collaborate on border controls for foods imported into Canada.

Last year, the two agencies worked on 62 border blitzes together. Earlier this spring, the CFIA collaborated with the CBSA in a joint border threat and risk assessment exercise.

In addition, the CFIA conducts its own destination inspections to verify that imported food products comply with the appropriate regulations. We have increased our testing of high-risk foods that are imported into Canada. We carry out targeted surveys in multiple commodities.

The CFIA also conducts monitoring programs to check for various residues and metals in foods. The 2005-06 national chemical residue monitoring report was recently posted to our website. These annual reports show a consistently high level of compliance across all commodities from both imported and domestic producers. For example, the compliance rate for products tested in that specific report range from 96% to 100% compliance for both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 reports.

Another monitoring program, which looked specifically at residues and metals in children’s food, also found very high compliance rates for both domestic and imported food samples. In the 2007-08 children’s food report, 293 domestic products and 543 imported products were tested. The overall compliance rate was 99.7% for domestic products and 98% for imported products.

Mr. Chairman, the CFIA not only tests for food safety post production in imported foods; we also take pre-emptive measures to strengthen food safety before product crosses our borders. For example, the CFIA works with the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, known as the LGMA, to ensure that any leafy green product coming from California to a Canadian market is produced in full compliance with food safety practices of the LGMA and verified through mandatory government audits by USDA-certified inspectors. The agency was recognized for its support and commitment to high levels of government inspection with a Golden Checkmark Award from the LGMA this past May.

In another example of enhanced pre-border food safety, the agency has tightened its controls on meat imported from the United States. Importers will no longer receive advance notice of whether or not their shipment will require a CFIA inspection.

Mr. Chairman, when food is non-compliant, the CFIA responds by preventing the product from entering Canada or initiating a recall of the product. Additionally, the CFIA may also step up the frequency of inspection of certain importers or suppliers known to have been non-compliant in the past.

In a world of global supply chains for ingredients, it is clear that the achievement of effective import food safety controls requires that efforts begin before and go beyond border inspection. To this end, Canada collaborates very closely with other major food importing and exporting countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union. We share information about audits, risk assessments, recalls, and compliance in other countries.

On the policy front, the CFIA is on track to revise and update its import control policy early in 2011. In the meantime, we have established an integrated approach to forecast and prioritize annual inspection, sampling, and testing activities. This was done based on international information sharing and current best practices. The approach will help us to target our efforts where the risks are greater.

In addition, the CFIA recently launched consultations on an importer licensing approach that will contribute to stronger supply chain controls. Licence suspension is one enforcement action the agency is considering for importers who sell and distribute unsafe food products.

To support the field level, we are currently updating and modernizing procedural manuals, inspection tasks, training and lab methods. The agency's recent move away from a traditional commodity-specific management approach to a more integrated food business line will address resource pressures and ever-changing risks and priorities.

To speak further about our inspection regime, as part of the government response to the Weatherill report the Government of Canada conducted a comprehensive review of the design and delivery of the compliance verification system. Reports of the review are referenced in the fall 2010 progress report on food safety. The progress report was released publicly on October 21, 2010, and was published on the CFIA website with a link from the food safety portal.

Inspection staff and union representatives, who formed part of the review team, indicated that the CVS represents an improvement over past inspection approaches. Participants also recognized that the system continues to evolve, and made recommendations for improvement. The agency has taken those recommendations into account and is working to address them.

Mr. Chairman, armed with better information, improved methods, and an understanding of where potential gaps may surface, the agency will continue to promote safe food for Canadian consumption. We have a robust and effective food safety system in this country. Third-party and internal audits provide the government with opportunities to continually improve on those systems. They also provide Canadians with a window into the efficacy of our programs and services. We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate transparency in the work that we do.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. We'll certainly be happy to take any questions.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

That's it for opening comments.

We'll move into questions.

Before I do that, I would just remind members of the following:

The obligation of a witness to answer all questions put by the committee must be balanced against the role that public servants play in providing confidential advice to their Ministers. The role of the public servant has traditionally been viewed in relation to the implementation and administration of government policy, rather than the determination of what that policy should be. Consequently, public servants have been excused from commenting on the policy decisions made by the government

Mr. Eyking, you have seven minutes.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Sydney—Victoria, NS

Thank you, Chair.

I thank the CFIA for coming in today.

Canadians like to be able to eat healthy and fresh and local food as much as they can, but they know they have to get some from other parts of the world, because we can't always produce it. I'm glad to hear that you're working with the United States...or being a watchdog, I guess, in terms of products coming in. Many times the farmers here cannot use certain products, and we would hope that the Americans are complying also, that they can't use the same products and vice-versa. Over the last year we've heard, through submissions from farmers, that many times we're at a disadvantage because other countries have practices that we're not allowed to do.

You talked about the leafy vegetables, but let's talk a bit about...because we also talked to a lot of apple growers across the country who are in desperate shape. Cheap apples and cherries are coming in, and orchard growers are saying that there are products used on the fruit that's coming in from other countries that they cannot use, and many times the fruit is dumped here.

The apple growers also said that they used to make a little money on what they call the “drop apples”, or the number two apples, for apple juice. Now they're finding that all these apple juice concentrates are coming in from China, and other countries I guess, and it's taking them out of that market.

They're not saying they're scared of competition, but the reality is this: is the apple juice that we may drink at McDonald's or somewheres, that may be made from concentrate from China, being checked for residue under the same strict regulations you would have for apples grown in this area, for instance?

I'll start off on the apples and produce, and then I have some questions about the meat products.

8:55 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member.

Mr. Chairman, I think the honourable member raises a very important point, and that is that the food supply is very much global. Part of the role of the CFIA, obviously, is to ensure that those products that enter Canada must meet the same standards as is required of Canadian producers. To that extent, the residue monitoring programs that we have in place, whether it be for chemicals, for anti-microbials, for heavy metals, or whatever the case may be, apply equally to imported products as to domestic. The design of those chemical residue programs takes into account not just those products that are approved by Health Canada, the pest management risk assessment agency, or others in Canada for use by Canadian producers; it also takes into account at the global level products that may have been approved in other jurisdictions and not approved for Canadian use. Under the chemical residue program applied to those products coming into the country, the same tolerances would apply whether those products were illegally imported into Canada and applied to Canadian domestic production or whether the production was done outside of Canada's borders.

To that extent, Mr. Chairman, I would emphasize very strongly that the work of our laboratory system at CFIA is tied intimately to ensuring that we have the test methods in place to test for not just those products approved in Canada, but products approved outside of Canada's jurisdiction. The complexity around this is in respect to the fact that these test methods must also be adapted to individual tissues: a test method that's used for meat, for example, may not be effective against dairy products, if you use the same test method.

We remain at the forefront, Mr. Chairman, in our alignment with international testing standards to ensure that we can verify that, for imported products, whether they be apples or other types of products, the chemical residue monitoring program applies equally as it would to a product produced in this country.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Sydney—Victoria, NS

In terms of the meats coming into this country, you can see the vacuum-packed meat products in these club stores and in these stores that go in volume, and we've been notified that many times there is no inspection sticker or country-of-origin labelling on them.

Is it true that your inspectors ensure that there's no meat, in the retail, these packages that are coming in...that's inspected? What are we doing on those products that are coming in that they're having due diligence by CFIA?

9 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you for the question, honourable member.

Mr. Chairman, I'll ask Paul Mayers if he could address the issue of the labelling.

9 a.m.

Paul Mayers Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Again, that is an important question. The same holds for meat as Brian described for other foods. They are indeed subject to the same requirements as domestic products, both in terms of the Meat Inspection Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.

In the context of products that come into the country in bulk and then are sold--for example, the vacuum-packaged products that the member mentioned--these products are equally subject to the labelling requirements.

We have had it drawn to our attention that occasionally the retailers of these products put them on display without adding the additional labelling. That issue has been drawn to our attention. We have followed up in terms of that issue, because it is indeed the case that they are subject to those labelling requirements.

So in any circumstance where it is drawn to our attention, or through our inspection activities we identify, that these products are not appropriately labelled, then we take action in relation to the products to bring about compliance.

9 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Sydney—Victoria, NS

I don't know if I recall you talking about the apple juice concentrate coming in. You say the concentrate is checked coming in, when it lands here? Or does anybody go to these orchards in China to check what their practices are, or what organic matter they use?

It's really bothering these apple growers how cheaply it's coming in when they feel they're not getting the same guidelines.

9 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Again, thank you, honourable member.

Just to clarify, in the case of apple juice or apple juice concentrate coming from other countries, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, there is a combination of activities undertaken. There is that which we endeavour to do in the country of origin. Over the past several years we have started the deployment of CFIA staff to various posts around the world that provide us a window of inspection opportunity in other countries.

Currently that covers China, with our veterinary inspector based in Beijing, and we have one in Tokyo--

9 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Sydney—Victoria, NS

Sorry, but just on that, you would have one of our inspectors there, in China, going to check on how they're producing the crops?

9 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

We have a presence in China. They may not necessarily visit the field directly. We have done audits. We have dispatched Canadian auditors to China in response to verification of activities of how the inspection system is operated in China, to validate the regulatory controls, to regulate how they do their testing programs, to follow up in terms of the certification processes.

As I say, we do have a full-time presence in certain regions of the world currently that collaborate with our partners, whether it's the U.S. or the EU. When they conduct audits they share their information of compliance with us. We adjust our border measures accordingly.

Behind that we also have, as we've talked about, the ability to do residue monitoring at the border or post-entry. If we have a suspicion, if information comes to our attention, either through sources such as INFOSAN or if there is an international recall of a product, we have the authority to stop at the border, to hold and detain and do further testing either at the border or inland, to validate that there is in fact no contamination of the product coming in.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you.

This is just a continuation, Dr. Evans, of where Mark was going.

I'll use the example of Chinese apple juice or apples, it doesn't matter. You said we put inspectors in place at the border to basically make sure that...you know, when it's coming in.

Is the cost of those inspectors totally picked up by Canada? Or is the cost somehow passed on to the importer, whether he's based in Toronto or Vancouver or wherever?

9:05 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Currently, Mr. Chair, the situation is such that the inspection activities carried out by the CFIA are not cost recovered to the importer in that regard. We are proposing at this point in time, on a go-forward basis, a licensing regime that would provide us with a different range of activities and enforcement tools to deal with the issue of how inspections are carried out and who carries out the inspections, but that regime is in development at this time.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you.

Mr. Bellavance, seven minutes.