Evidence of meeting #135 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was organic.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Louise Vandelac  Director, Full Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal, Collectif de recherche écosanté sur les pesticides, les politiques et les alternatives
Thibault Rehn  Coordinator, Vigilance OGM
Tia Loftsgard  Executive Director, Canada Organic Trade Association
Tyler Levitan  Manager, Government Relations and Regulatory Affairs, Canada Organic Trade Association
Lucy Sharratt  Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
Gary Hazlewood  Executive Director, Canada Mink Breeders Association
Jason McLinton  Vice-President, Grocery Division and Regulatory Affairs, Retail Council of Canada
Tom McLellan  Former Vice-President, Canada Mink Breeders Association
Pierre Labonté  Board Member, Canada Mink Breeders Association

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

We'll start our second hour of the study on the perception of and public trust in the Canadian agricultural sector.

On our second panel we have, from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Ms. Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator. Thank you for being here, Ms. Sharratt. From the Canada Mink Breeders Association, we have Gary Hazlewood, Executive Director. Welcome, Mr. Hazlewood. We have Monsieur Pierre Labonté, Board Member.

Welcome, Mr. Labonté.

Also, we have Tom McLellan, Former Vice- President. Thank you for being with us, Mr. McLellan.

Finally, from the Retail Council of Canada we have Mr. Jason McLinton, Vice-President, Grocery Division and Regulatory Affairs.

Welcome to all of you. We'll get right to business. You have six minutes each.

Would you like to start, Ms. Sharratt?

12:05 p.m.

Lucy Sharratt Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Thank you, Mr. Chair and MPs for this opportunity to share what we have been hearing from the public, and what we have observed and concluded from a decade of public engagement on this issue of genetic engineering specifically, and a decade of our own research.

I work as the coordinator for a national network that brings together 16 groups: farmer organizations, social justice groups, environmental organizations and regional coalitions of grassroots groups.

In the absence of mandatory labelling of GM foods and government tracking of GM crops, and in response to public demand, we track which GM crops, GM animals, GM traits and GM foods are on the market or pending approval. We also monitor, examine and discuss the environmental, economic and social issues that are raised by the use of this technology in food and farming. For example, we just published a report that documents, for the first time in one place, the GM escape and contamination incidents that have occurred in Canada and their impacts on Canadian farmers. In 2015, we published a series of six reports that reviewed the environmental, social, economic and health impacts of GM crops and foods, after 20 years, in Canada.

Our network exists to fill the gaps in information and public debate that many Canadians are seeking. These gaps are created by the lack of mandatory GM food labelling, lack of transparency in the regulation of GMOs and diminishing public research. In filling these gaps, we believe government would be meeting many objectives in the public interest and thereby also taking effective measures to improve public trust.

First is the issue, of course, of GM food labelling, which has already been discussed today. All polls since 1994 have shown that over 80% of Canadians want mandatory labelling and this is a high and consistent support for one concrete regulatory change. This consistency over two decades leads us to conclude that Canadians are not satisfied with the explanations provided for this lack of labelling. Multiple well-resourced education and public opinion campaigns have been implemented over the years. We do not think that a new campaign will change this public opinion. Rather, we believe the solution is to provide Canadians with the clear, accessible GM food labelling they have been asking for.

The lack of GM labelling is just the most obvious transparency issue undermining public trust. Canadians are also asking for more transparent regulation of GMOs and opportunities for public engagement. According to a 2015 Ipsos Reid poll that we commissioned, 57% of Canadians said they were not confident in the government's safety and regulatory systems for GM foods. There is a significant lack of transparency in government regulation of GMOs and a dependence on corporate science. The regulatory decisions that allow for commercial release are based on confidential information submitted by the companies that want their products on the market. Our regulatory agencies do not require that this science be peer-reviewed. This also means that if any testing is done by companies, all or most of it remains confidential.

Our regulators are independent, but the science they are evaluating is not. This situation was described as a problem in 2001 by the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel on the future of food biotechnology, a panel convened at the request of multiple government departments. The panel concluded that the lack of transparency in the current approval process, leading as it does to an inability to evaluate the scientific rigour of the assessment process, seriously compromises the confidence that society can place in the current regulatory framework used to assess potential risks to human, animal and environmental safety posed by GMOs. The panel, in 2001, made 53 recommendations for regulatory reform but none of the recommendations pertaining to transparency and the need for peer review were implemented.

Finally, we would like to flag a new government policy that's on the horizon that we think will create a significant challenge to public trust. The proposal to implement a “low-level presence” policy will mean that the federal government will ask Canadians to place their trust, not just in our regulatory system, but also in the regulatory systems of foreign governments. Canada has recently agreed, via the new trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico, to implement a “low-level presence” policy. This will mean that the Canadian government will accept food imports from the U.S. and Mexico that contain a small amount of GM foods that have not yet been approved as safe by Health Canada.

If there is a GM food that regulators at Health Canada have not yet assessed but has been approved by the U.S. and Mexican regulators, it will be allowed into our food system in a small amount.

In both perception and practice, this policy will mean that Health Canada's food safety regulation will no longer apply to all the foods Canadians eat. The public's ability to trust the safety of foods on the market will be challenged by this proposal to remove Health Canada from assessing the safety of some genetically engineered organisms entering our food system.

In a democracy, we require the public to be informed and engaged. This is currently impeded by the lack of product labelling and the lack of transparency in the regulatory processes.

We therefore would like to reiterate our long-standing recommendations for mandatory labelling of all GM foods using clear on-package text; government tracking of which GM foods are on the market and which GM crops and traits are grown; funding for more public research; a system of regular peer review of government safety assessments, as recommended by the Royal Society of Canada's expert panel on on the future of food biotechnology; zero tolerance for GM foods on the market that are not assessed as safe by Health Canada; and finally, the inclusion of an assessment of the potential economic and social impacts before new GM crops and animals are introduced.

12:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Ms. Sharratt.

Now we have the Canada Mink Breeders Association for up to six minutes.

Go ahead, Mr. Hazlewood.

12:10 p.m.

Gary Hazlewood Executive Director, Canada Mink Breeders Association

Mr. Chairman and honourable committee members, we would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before your committee as representatives of the Canada Mink Breeders Association.

From Jacques Cartier to Samuel de Champlain, the first nations and the Hudson's Bay Company, the fur trade was and continues to be crucial to our resource-based economy. There are over 60,000 Canadians working in various sectors of the fur trade, including mink and fox farmers, trappers, designers, auction houses, manufacturers, retailers, etc. We applaud the committee for studying the perception of and the public trust in the Canadian agriculture sector. These issues are a top priority for our industry.

The fur sector is responsible and highly regulated, with animal and environmental welfare and sustainability at its core. Our operations are governed by separate codes of practice for the care and handling of farmed mink and fox. The codes were developed under the auspices of the National Farm Animal Care Council and the Canada Mink Breeders Association, in conjunction with veterinarians, animal welfare authorities, animal welfare scientists and industry experts.

Canadian mink farmers are currently being audited by third party auditors, with the expectation of all farms being certified by the end of 2019. This process provides a comprehensive and transparent approach to animal welfare in the Canadian mink farming sector. This certification is recognized by FurMark. FurMark is a global process providing public traceability of fur through the supply chain from producer to consumer. The chain point approach will demonstrate correct animal welfare, environmental safeguards and sustainability of the mink farming sector to both consumers and the general public, a significant demonstration of confidence engaging public trust. In fact, FurMark means confidence: confidence for our suppliers, confidence for our partners and, most importantly, confidence for consumers and the general public. For consumers, FurMark delivers the reassurance needed to confidently buy natural fur raised in Canada, making the Canadian certification system transparent, traceable and readily accessible.

The fur farming sector here in Canada and around the globe is experiencing increasing challenges with animal extremists and anti-animal agriculture groups. The Canadian agriculture community as a whole has been faced with pig farm protests, lamb releases, pet store vandalism, mink releases, truck sabotage, economic sabotage, personal threats and false information. A list of all mink farm incidents has been included in your package for review.

When extremists break in at night and startle the animals with bright lights and manipulate their environment, it's alarming for both the animals and the farmer. These break-ins create poor animal welfare conditions, and expose the animal to biosecurity hazards and disease. For the farmer and his family, it's an invasion of property and privacy. These activities create an environment of fear for the safety of the animals, the farmers and their families, as well as their livelihood.

Extremists encourage other extreme activities. Websites like the The Final Nail show how to get into mink farms and sheds and easy access routes to get away. Farmers are harassed by phone calls, strange letters, texts and more. They're forced to deal with smear campaigns and untrue videos that—even with court-ordered removal—remain online and continue to hurt our farmers and the trade as a whole. With the power of social media, they can go viral in minutes or days, creating an extremely false and damaging impression of our industry.

As fur farmers, we've always been grateful that the MPs in 1913 had the wisdom to amend the Criminal Code, section 460, to make entering a dwelling with a pen, a cage or den with fur-bearing animals an indictable offence. Unfortunately, this law is not being enforced to protect our farmers. We need your help.

We recommend the committee take a look at legislation in the United States entitled the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Allowing animal extremists and anti-agriculture groups to slander farmers' names with untruths and doctored videos hurts all of agriculture. This can easily be remedied with the right legislation.

We also recommend the government stand behind agriculture with supportive ads and language to change the way we talk about fur specifically, but agriculture as a whole.

As this committee is aware, fur farms play an important role in Canadian agriculture, contributing over $1 billion to the Canadian economy. Canadian mink farmers are proud of their farms and work closely with veterinarians and other experts to ensure optimal animal welfare and care. Mink farming is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

As representatives of the Canada Mink Breeders Association, we appreciate the invitation to speak to you today. Public trust in agriculture is a very important issue.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. Hazlewood.

Now we go to Mr. McLinton with the Retail Council of Canada.

12:15 p.m.

Jason McLinton Vice-President, Grocery Division and Regulatory Affairs, Retail Council of Canada

Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for this opportunity to discuss with you the public's perception and confidence in the Canadian agricultural sector.

I will make a brief presentation for the Retail Council of Canada, or the RCC.

The retail industry is the largest private employer in Canada. More than 2.1 million Canadians work there. Ninety-five percent of retailers selling food products are members of the RCC. They provide essential services and are important employers in communities, large and small, across the country. They have recognized private label ranges and offer products in all food categories.

I'm the Vice-President of the Grocery Division for RCC. I also manage RCC's food safety and regulatory committee.

Thanks again for the opportunity to talk about public trust in Canada's food system. I very specifically want to talk about food safety in particular being the cornerstone, we believe, of public trust, as well as a recent uptick we've noticed, which is a challenge to public trust. That is the use of consumer notices, which is confusing to industry and to consumers, as we saw recently with the example of romaine lettuce last year and, even more recently although less well known, turkey and other poultry products right before Christmas.

RCC grocery members are a proud and integral part of Canada's food system. Grocery retailers are the final and direct interface with Canadians, providing families across the country with a wide variety of foods that they enjoy every day.

Canadians can be proud of their food system; it's one of the very best in the world. Our system is based on trust, trust that a wide variety of food will continue to be available year-round, despite our climate, at competitive prices, and trust that the food they purchase is safe.

RCC firmly believes that trust is built on transparency, providing consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they purchase. Our members provide Canadians with this information in a variety of ways, from education programs provided in-store and online to information that is provided on food labels.

Our members have proudly partnered with Health Canada to support important collaborative consumer education campaigns, including the Eat Well and the nutrition facts table campaigns. These programs were successful in educating Canadians both on nutrition fundamentals and on how to use the nutrition facts table.

Specifically on food safety, while information is provided in all areas, there is no question that public trust must be at its greatest in this area. This is no doubt a top priority for us. Grocery retailers in Canada remove recalled food items immediately from store shelves to minimize any impact, but the recent uptick in the government's use of consumer advisories or public health notices instead of recalls or public education campaigns is eroding public trust in Canada's food system. It's causing significant and entirely unnecessary upheavals to grocery retailers, and confusion in the marketplace.

Allow me to illustrate with the two recent examples that I mentioned, one involving romaine lettuce last fall and the other involving turkey and other poultry products immediately before the holiday season.

In the case of romaine lettuce, consumers were advised not to consume it, yet there was no recall issued, leaving retailers to deal with the implications. In other words, government shifted the responsibility of making a public policy decision onto retailers to make the decision of whether or not products should be pulled from the shelves, assuming all reputational and financial risks associated with that.

The issue could have been addressed with open and transparent communication between government and industry, including RCC and its members, to determine the source of the issue more quickly and advise vendors, suppliers and consumers on appropriate actions.

In the case of turkey and poultry, it is a case of the boy who cried wolf, leading to consumers being less likely to take food safety messaging seriously. Immediately before Christmas, a consumer advisory was issued on turkey and other poultry products. When you read the notice, it was essentially about proper food handling over the holidays, such as how to prepare and store turkey. Yet, it was entitled “Outbreak of Salmonella illnesses” and was issued without industry input. Framing a reminder on proper food handling as an “outbreak” erodes public trust in our food safety system.

Furthermore, it failed to achieve its objective. There wasn't very much, if any, public or media uptake on this, yet we can all agree on what the objective is: raising awareness among Canadians about proper food handling—in this case, seasonally. RCC and its members are very supportive of proactive food handling, say around the barbeque season, which is going to be coming very shortly, hopefully, despite today's weather.

This issue with turkey could have been easily addressed with proactive and collaborate government-industry consumer education.

The solution is that government and industry must work together proactively to help consumers understand food handling through consumer education campaigns. In the case of poultry and turkey, this would have addressed that need. In all cases, government must partner with industry, including RCC and its members, to do two things. The first is to get the information it requires in order to make a determination on whether a recall should be issued. The second is to develop proactive consumer messaging. Only after these two options have been employed and the issue is still not addressed should a consumer advisory be considered. When that's done, it should be done in consultation with industry and with predictable form and content.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Unfortunately, Mr. McLinton, I'm going to have to stop you here. You might have a chance to finish—I think you were very close.

We'll start with our round of questions.

Mr. Shipley, you have six minutes.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I want to thank all the witnesses for coming out.

My first quick question is for Ms. Sharratt. With regard to mandatory labelling, you're saying that 80% of people want to know and have it on there. I thought science determined health, and science has determined that GMOs are healthy. Everybody talks about science, and as a result, quite honestly, nobody believes you. As I mentioned earlier to our witnesses, it's very selective science, depending on what you, I guess in some cases, maybe want the outcome to be.

I always get concerned when you're talking only about GMOs and the health of Canadians. What really bothers me on the other side of this is that we have billions of litres of raw sewage that is dumped into our water system every day. Do you promote that we should label our water as “I'm not sure”, “hazardous” or “from a hazardous source”?

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

We commissioned a poll in 2015, an Ipsos Reid poll, and it—

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Focus on my question.

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

The answers that Canadians gave as to why they wanted GM food labelled were multiple and diverse. Eighty-seven per cent said that they just wanted to know what they were eating, how the food was produced or where it was produced. Many were concerned about issues like corporate control, environmental concerns and ethical concerns. Actually, it's quite a diverse set of reasons as to why people want labelling.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I have a habit of running out of time.

So, what did they tell you a GMO is?

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

Even their answers said that, actually, people are thinking through the issue through different lenses.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

No, no, my question is—

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

It's genetically engineered—

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I know that.

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

—so as per the CFIA definition of genetic engineering, where you have—

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

What do you tell them?

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

We talk about the science, like the process of genetic engineering, including gene editing.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

The interesting part is that most people say, “I'm afraid of GMOs.”

I say, “Really? What's a GMO?”

“Well, I'm not sure, but I've been told about it.”

“Then tell me what a hybrid is.”

They don't know what that is either, but somebody has misinformed them. We've witnessed some of that today. They've misinformed on some platform based on some sort of science that has actually put fear in without knowledge.

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

We would suggest that actually labelling the product of the technology would enable a discussion between Canadians about that technology.

April 4th, 2019 / 12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

But you're demonizing the product.

12:25 p.m.

Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

Lucy Sharratt

We are discussing the issues that are raised, which we think are legitimate and necessary—so, the benefits and risks of the technology.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

I want to go to the fur guys. I want to say thank you to Mr. Hazlewood and Mr. Labonté for coming out today.

Mr. McLellan, you've been in my riding. I've visited your farm. You've talked to me about your experience as a breeder of mink with your family because it's a family organization. I know that in your riding you personally faced some of the issues with these extremists. Actually, I don't know what the definition of “terrorist” is, but when somebody intentionally breaks into a secured place and threatens the animals, which could honestly.... I'm not sure that they have any care about the animals—it's either that or they're totally naive—or they wouldn't be doing what they're doing. At any rate, can you just talk about—because it is a family operation and we sat down in your office one day—what that means? This is about public trust when you have radical animal activists breaking into individual farms and homesteads. What's the impact on your family and your business?

12:30 p.m.

Tom McLellan Former Vice-President, Canada Mink Breeders Association

For starters, I've been doing this for 40 years, and my Dad before that. As well, my two sons are involved.

It's very difficult. As Gary mentioned in his talk, it destroys the pedigree that you've worked on for years, and disease problems come on the farm and in the animals.

It's so disappointing to me that people who are uneducated are trying to push their values on our farmers.

It's so hard for our family, too. It was a $500,000 loss, which takes a long time to recuperate from. Since this happened, our sons and their families are involved. We take turns. We drive around our farm every night of the week, because there's no real way to stop these people. They seem to know everything. It's disappointing that they can destroy your business, your company—most importantly, your family business.

Most of the farms in Canada are family businesses, as it has been for our family, for generations. We're Canadians, and we've been proud of the fact that we have a chance to voice our opinion. We've also been proud of the fact that—we thought—we had a chance for choices, not somebody pushing choices down our throat.

It's very emotional for the family. They're raising young kids.

To finalize, if I can really quickly, I'd like to pose a question to everybody here. I'd like to know your reaction—