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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

9:50 a.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Bloc Compton—Stanstead, QC

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

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

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

Mr. Hoback.

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

Randy Hoback Conservative 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 Conservative 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 Conservative Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

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

9:55 a.m.

Liberal

Mark Eyking Liberal 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 Conservative Larry Miller

Mr. Valeriote.

December 7th, 2010 / 10 a.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Thank you.

We received a response to an order paper question on inspection staff. It said inspection staff is stationed in field offices, laboratories, and food processing facilities across the country, within four operational areas and eighteen regions. The number of total field inspection staff that was given to us in March of this year was 3,342.

Of that number, can you tell us exactly how many--part time and full time, exact numbers--are dedicated to the beef industry?

10 a.m.

Associate Vice-President, Programs, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Paul Mayers

Mr. Chairman, it's important when one considers inspector numbers to understand the agency's operating parameters. We cover plants that slaughter more than one species. We, in terms of our coverage at meat processing, cover plants that handle much more than just beef. Our focus is to ensure that we have the right inspection staff to cover the food safety requirements of Canada.

We don't break down our numbers by who's covering--

10 a.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt, but could you provide to me, to this committee, in writing, the number of full-time equivalents that you have dedicated, of the 3,342, to the beef industry so that we have an answer? Is that a fair question?

10 a.m.

An hon. member

He just answered it.

10 a.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

No, he didn't answer it.

10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

I think what Mr. Mayers--

10 a.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

I'm just looking for a number, Mr. Chair.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

I know you are. I'm just trying to point out that I think what he's saying is that it may not be quite as easy as what you're asking, because the inspectors—

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Mr. Evans, I think, wants to answer.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

—inspect a number of different industries.

Go ahead, Mr. Evans.

10:05 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

I appreciate the question in terms of trying to break down an inspector to a specific species. Again, you're into that reality where, in our world, we have people who have designated authority under the Meat Inspection Act. He may be doing poultry, pork, or beef under those authorities.

Similarly, under the animal health circumstance, we have inspectors who are designated under animal health. Some of that may be humane transportation. He may be looking at a mixed load. There may be cattle on that load, or there may be other components to that. He could be doing a disease investigation on a rabies call, which may or may not relate to a cow; it could relate to other species.

We can certainly give you hard numbers. We know the number of inspectors we have at any given time in the organization, and we can tell you the authorities they operate under, but they are not required, on a daily basis, to fill in a time chart and say, “Today I did ten minutes for the beef industry and x minutes for another industry.” Their time is not tracked in that way.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Larry Miller

Thank you.

Mr. Richards, you have five minutes.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Wild Rose, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to focus on the inspection staff as well. Our government has hired, I believe, 538 new inspection staff since we've taken office, and we're hiring another 170 inspectors to fill some of the gaps that may exist in the system.

That's a lot of inspectors to hire in that period of time. Obviously these people don't simply walk in off the street and start inspecting plants the next day. There's a process they go through to be fully qualified and fully trained to meet the standards we would expect from our inspectors to ensure that our food is safe for Canadians.

Can you give me more information and background on exactly what type of background these people have when you hire them, what kind of training they go through, and what length of time it takes to complete that kind of training before they can begin inspecting our food to ensure it's safe for Canadians?

10:05 a.m.

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

Dr. Brian Evans

Thank you, honourable member. I'll ask Cameron Prince to address your question.

10:05 a.m.

Vice-President, Operations, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Cameron Prince

Thank you for the question.

Yes, we are in the process of hiring staff. We've received funding for 170 new inspectors. I'm pleased to announce that as of today we have hired 157 already.

The people we're looking for to do these kinds of jobs have technical or science backgrounds preferably, although there are many people in the meat industry who have very intimate knowledge of the industry, in combination with technical backgrounds. We're looking for people who have graduated from community colleges or university in food science and have related meat experience.

As far as the training goes, we've recently implemented a very comprehensive 29-week training program for meat inspectors. There are nine weeks in class learning how to do the inspection tasks under the compliance verification system, learning how to do sampling, and learning how to use technology for IM/IT tools, and that sort of thing. So it is very comprehensive.

During the other 20 weeks they work with experienced inspectors to be mentored to learn how to conduct themselves with the industry and do inspection and compliance activities. It is quite a comprehensive training system we've put in place over the last year.