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.