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

9:05 a.m.

Bloc

André Bellavance Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you very much for being here to discuss food safety. It is a crucial issue not only for our committee, but for government in general because it goes to the issue of public health and safety. So, it is always a pleasure to have you before our committee on this subject. Obviously, we have many questions to ask, and seven minutes is not long.

Mr. Evans, you referred to a poll according to which 44% of Canadians believe that there is a greater frequency of inspection for imported food than there was 10 years ago. Obviously, this is a poll, it is strictly a perception. If 44% of Canadians believe that, that means 66% do not. Among that 66%, some people may not have wanted to reply; perhaps others have a different opinion, but, undoubtedly, a perception poll is not a reliable way of finding out whether things are really that much better and that we are actually doing inspections.

We know there is an increasing number of imported food that ends up in our stores. Seventy-nine per cent of imports come mainly from the United States, but also from emerging countries for which there have been some concerns as to food safety. It is not up to me to judge what other people eat, but I can judge what they do when their products come over here. That is something we can speak up about. So, products from Mexico, China, Chile and Thailand, etc., are increasingly appearing on store shelves.

Public perception is one thing. The perception of people in the know is something else. Perception is not the only thing. People in the agricultural sector find that the current inspection system for imported goods is inadequate. On that note, the Union des producteurs agricoles whose annual convention was held last week issued a recommendation to the federal government regarding imported goods.

I have already asked a question in the House on this point specifically, because we knew that there were more and more questions being asked about the CFIA's role and whether it is actually capable of carrying out these inspections. According to the UPA, the ideal solution would be to create a federal agency responsible for the monitoring of imported goods, in order to create reciprocity agreements at the border and to allocate the necessary resources, powers and tools to enforce these requirements. So, that should be the CFIA's mandate, right? However, the UPA believes the work is not currently being done adequately.

Do you believe it is up to the agency to create this type of office, or should this type of process be created within the agency. Or rather, should we create a dedicated agency to deal specifically with the inspection of imported goods?

9:05 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member.

In answer to the question, I will make two quick points at the outset. The poll referenced was done by Globe and Mail and Nanos. Obviously I take the member's point very clearly. If one looks at those who believe that the level of inspection is the same or has increased, you get into the 70% area; it's not that people believe it has gone down or that we're not doing an adequate job.

If you further pursue the information that was contained, a number of polls conducted by both the government and the private sector continue to show that anywhere from 70% to 85% of Canadians demonstrate a degree of confidence in the food supply in this country and the safety of their food.

I think the member talked very eloquently about the challenge of a global food supply, which is a reality, and the challenges that poses not just for CFIA but for food regulators at a global level. When one talks about the responsibility for safety, that clearly falls within the mandate of CFIA on imported food. I don't think there is a need to duplicate or create alternate administrative mechanisms to assure food safety in imported food. If one wants to talk about issues around economics and dumping, it is outside the purview of CFIA to undertake to do that.

As we indicated, we expect to have in place in early 2011 a revised import control policy to govern the full range of food products imported into Canada--those that are both what we would refer to as regulated, and those that are non-regulated sectors at a domestic level. In addition we carry out activities, and it is very important that when we reference equivalency agreements and reciprocity agreements, we have specific agreements in place with a number of countries around the world.

We have memorandums of understanding with China, and an active Canada-China food safety committee that met just last month. It is co-chaired by our Chinese counterpart and Dr. Richard Arsenault from CFIA in Canada. We have a similar mechanism with Russia. We have active engagement with the United States on a daily basis at a technical level. We now have CFIA staff embedded in Washington working with the FDA on a daily basis.

In the area of fish and seafood, for example, where problems have been identified in the past, we have put in place agreements that raise the level of technical expectation. We carry out audits in those jurisdictions where concerns have been identified, not solely by Canada but by other trading partners as well, to ensure they can achieve the standards that are necessary for them to have the privilege of accessing the Canadian market.

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

André Bellavance Richmond—Arthabaska, QC

If that is your mandate, Mr. Evans, why are we hearing that far more inspections are carried out on documents than on food?

And why is it that the agricultural sector itself believes this type of entity should be created—they call it an inspection bureau—exclusively for food inspection?

Earlier on, you were referring to vegetables coming from California. We're not talking about China or India. It is not far away. The Americans are our neighbours, but we are aware of the fact that they sometimes use products that are prohibited here.

Mark was referring to apples earlier on. The same thing applies to other foods. There may be pesticides used in the U.S. that cannot be used here, yet the food ends us here anyway.

You referred to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement: these foods need to be approved by the USDA. First of all, does the term “approved” mean the same thing as “inspected”? What type of inspections do they do?

Is the CFIA informed of these inspections or is it simply approved by them, and they say that it is all right and the food can come through? So that that is a trade issue more than a food safety issue? Aside from this, will the CFIA do its own inspections?

I know full well that if Brussels sprouts enter the country, the agency will not inspect each individual Brussels sprout in each box. However, when there is a shipment that enters the country, people want to be reassured and know that each time products enter the country, an inspection is done according to very strict guidelines. If that is not the case, are we simply taking a look at documents and saying it's okay because the USDA agreed to have it sent to Canada and that we trust them?

9:10 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member.

Perhaps I will share this answer with Paul Mayers.

9:10 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

Our approach very much takes multiple layers. First, at the international level we work within the Codex Alimentarius so the international standards that govern food safety and foods traded internationally are consistent, and the interpretation of those standards in their application is consistent. Canada is an extremely active member of Codex Alimentarius to assure ourselves that the international standards governing foods moving in trade are indeed robust enough to provide the protection we desire.

Second, we work directly with our trading partners. So to continue the example of the United States that the honourable member mentioned, we work extremely closely with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., the two regulatory agencies in the United States that cover the food supply.

That robust engagement with the U.S. is a day-by-day engagement. It isn't an occasional discussion. We are engaged with our counterparts in the U.S. on a daily basis. As Dr. Evans mentioned, we've embedded staff directly with our counterparts. When we manage events in Canada, we're open to inviting USDA to participate in those events. We share joint events with them.

We audit our U.S. counterparts in terms of their food safety activities, so we have a very clear understanding of their inspection strategies. Dependent on the specific commodity, some products that come to Canada from the United States come with formal certification on the part of the U.S. in terms of their oversight; other products come into the country as a result of our understanding of the inspection oversight that's employed in the U.S. and our confidence in our trading partner in terms of the quality of that oversight.

Then the third layer of coverage is, of course, the work we do here in terms of inspecting products that enter Canada at destination. As Dr. Evans has overviewed, we conduct a robust program of inspection, sampling, and testing. The national chemical residue monitoring program, as just one example, undertakes chemical testing of not just domestic product but imported product as well.

That information allows us to apply targeted strategies to any areas where problems have been identified. Dr. Evans spoke to the border blitzes we've undertaken with the CBSA, those targeted actions that allow us to focus on any commodity where we've seen problems in the past. We apply an approach whereby we take a representative sampling in terms of our inspection approach, but if we identify a problem, that product moves to 100% inspection until the exporter can again demonstrate he has his system in control, and we can move back to a more representative approach.

So we apply a comprehensive and robust approach to imports, which allows us to have confidence that we hold imports to the same standard as we hold domestic products.

Thank you.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you.

We'll now move to Mr. Atamanenko for seven minutes.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Thank you.

Larry, before we start, it's my understanding that if members are in agreement, I can split my time--in this case with Malcolm. Is that okay?

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Oh, yes, that's your choice.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Okay. Thank you. We have our specialist here, so....

Thanks very much for being here. I will try to be quick in order to give you time to answer questions.

My first question deals with the importation of horses for slaughter. It's my understanding that there's a list of drugs, such as phenylbutazone and nitrofurazone, that something like 96% of horses in the United States take--in addition to many others. Any of these drugs, according to the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, are banned in terms of human consumption because of their serious and lethal idiosyncratic effects, adverse effects, on humans. In other words, if they're administered once, there's no way, ever, that animal could enter the food chain.

So if in fact roughly 96% of horses in the United States use banned substances, how can we ensure that these horses do not enter the food chain?

The other thing is that there's a form that folks have to fill out now that asks if any drugs or vaccines have been administered during the shortest time of the following three periods: since January 31, 2010; the last 180 days; or during the time you owned the animal. Theoretically, that could mean somebody could get a horse and have that horse for a day and say that no drugs have been administered.

In terms of the drugs that are permissible with a quarantine, how can we monitor that animals can stay in quarantine for six months? And how can this be manageable in feedlots where they're then not allowed to have any drugs? Would they or would they not be susceptible to diseases such as strangles?

Those are my questions. I have some documents, from the New Holland plant in Pennsylvania, that shows that basically most owners have signed and just put an address and a signature; they haven't checked the boxes. It's really sloppily done. It makes a mockery of the forms that we have given them.

I'll stop there and let Malcolm continue with a couple of questions.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Larry Miller

Can we let them answer your questions and move on?

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Okay. I just wanted to make sure Malcolm got a few minutes.

9:20 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

The control of veterinary drugs in horses for slaughter operates on the same basis as the control of drug residues in other meats. We operate a testing program. The drugs that you mentioned are part of that testing program. In fact, in the testing that we've undertaken we have an extremely high level of compliance--100% compliance--in relation to those banned substances.

We operate that program of testing for the very reason that you've noted, that these are compounds of concern in terms of human health. As a result of our concern in relation to those compounds, it is important that a part of the oversight program includes assessing the potential that residues of those substances that are a risk to human health are not present in product used as meat.

In addition, as you've noted, our primary market for horse meat is the European Union. We've worked very closely with the European Union in relation to their import requirements. Of course, a key element of being able to access their market is being able to provide them with assurance that these compounds are not present in the meat. We are able to do that and continue to enjoy access to that market as a direct result of a comprehensive program of controls. Those controls include controls in relation to the animal.

You speak to the issue of before-slaughter assurance that withdrawal times are met. We do that through the combination of the information, through the forms that you've described, as well as through a program where, if information is not sufficient, the horses are excluded from slaughter for a six-month period.

The control, in terms of providing that assurance, relates to our oversight in terms of the documentation associated with each animal. That facilitates our ability to assess that animals have indeed met those withdrawal periods.

That, combined with our veterinary oversight as well as the testing program that is a part, gives us, as well as our trading partners, the confidence that meat derived through that slaughter program meets the standards established.

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Alex Atamanenko British Columbia Southern Interior, BC

Thank you.

I'd like to pursue this, but I'll give Malcolm some time to put questions.

December 7th, 2010 / 9:20 a.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen Welland, ON

I appreciate what Dr. Evans said earlier about imported foods, and equivalencies, and inspection regimes overseas. My first question is related to recommendation seven in the Weatherill report...what actually said that you would do an independent audit of the CVS system, which is actually a homegrown system. Ms. Swan has said you haven't done it.

So the first question, obviously, is how do we have confidence that we have equivalencies over there when we don't have them here?

I only have two minutes, so let me put my second question.

When you talk to equivalency audits, you're saying that they're done. The only one I've seen to date, that's been posted on your website, is the one for the U.S.

Have they been done? If they have been done, how many have been done, and when will they be posted to the CFIA website so that we can actually look and say that we indeed we have seen them. I include the ten major countries in that: the U.S., Mexico, China, France, Italy, Brazil, Chile, Thailand, Australia, and the U.K.

I'm saying that very quickly, simply because you'll know I'll run out of time, Dr. Evans.

9:20 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you very much, honourable member.

I'll reiterate, Mr. Chair, that with respect to the CVS system, there was a comprehensive review done in response to the Weatherill report. That review took place at three different levels, and we can reiterate those points if it's so desired.

When we--