Mr. Speaker, first I would like to say what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to take part in the debate today. I feel very honoured to be able to work with the Department of Agriculture and Agri-food, a department that has such a real impact on the lives of Canadians.
The agriculture and agri-food portfolio is one that affects us all to probably a greater extent than many others, although different departments in the federal government affect our lives each and every day. However, agriculture and agri-food is one that contributes to economic growth and job creation, international competitiveness, market development and domestic prosperity. Fundamentally and most importantly it is one of the major players and is responsible for providing and ensuring a healthy and safe food supply for Canadians.
I also feel very fortunate to work with the present Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food as parliamentary secretary. I enjoy very much working in co-operation with him, in facing and meeting the challenges head on that are coming to the industry today, seemingly at a faster rate than they ever have before.
The agriculture industry is one that changes very rapidly. It always has and quite frankly probably always will. It is an industry that is made up of individuals, whether primary producers or processors or anyone else in the very large agri-food chain. It is made up of people who are very resilient and very determined to be successful. They are efficient producers,
efficient players and holders of the links in that chain. It is also a pleasure to work with them.
We know that Canadians feel very strongly about the agri-food industry and even passionately about food. When we are on a holiday or on weekends or a dinner at home with our family some of the strongest memories we have are about food. It is said that the way to a person's heart is through their stomach. We in Canada have to stop more often than we do and remind ourselves how fortunate we are as Canadians to have the food system we have.
I want to remind members and anyone who might be watching about the importance and the value the agri-food industry plays in providing Canadians with the safest and most reasonably priced food of any country in the world. Once in a while we see an analysis that states the country south of us spends a slightly smaller percentage of their disposable income on food consumed at home. Basically we are neck in neck with them.
On average Canadians spend about 10 or 11 per cent of their disposable income on food. When that is compared with some other countries in the world where it is two, three and four times higher and when you consider that the food provided to all Canadians is without question the best and the safest in the world, we are doing a pretty good job. Canadians are getting an incredibly good return on their investment and their food dollar. Not only does the agri-food industry provide the food on our plates but it also plays a major role in the balance of trade.
About 8 per cent of the products that we export in total are agri-food products, whether in bulk or further processed products, to the tune of about $13.5 billion. The agri-food industry from the primary producer right through to the restaurant and food service industry employs about 15 per cent of the population, about 1.6 million or 1.7 million Canadians. It is no small player.
The agri-food industry plays a major role in the sustainability of our environment and is being asked to play a more major role. It is certainly willing to play a more major role and to take responsibility for soil and water conservation. Last but not least the industry plays a major role in the social fibre and fabric of the nation. I could go back through all of these and outline areas where the government is very active.
This morning the member for Québec-Est brought up a number of issues that he thought needed to be discussed, but I want to remind him that he did not bring up one issue that the present government is not already addressing.
One of the other speakers from the opposition made the comment that they had an opposition day on agriculture last week. They tried to claim that they beat us to the punch. I would remind the opposition that the government about five or six weeks ago announced that there was going to be a full day of debate in the House on agriculture.
One of the things the government is doing which has not been done in this way before is listening to the concerns of opposition members about the agriculture and agri-food industry. It is the substance of the debate today that is so important. I would like to take a few minutes on some of that in a minute or two.
I would also like to express to everyone how pleased we are to see the eagerness that all of the players in the agri-food industry are exhibiting in attacking and approaching the challenges and opportunities that are before us in the agri-food industry today. There is a real determination among Canadians to put their shoulder to the wheel, to work with government, to work with all of the players to help support and facilitate what needs to be done in adjusting to the new trade regimes that we have to deal with.
We know as a government that the direction and input must come from the bottom up, but it is the duty, as other members have said today, of government to deal with and to facilitate and to consolidate the concerns of everybody in the industry, whether that be by methods of financing, whether it be in legislation, whether it be in enforcement, or inspection or whatever.
I would like to take a few minutes to talk about how fortunate we are with the food inspection and safety programs we have in Canada today and the initiatives that the present government is moving with in that field. Canadians have the best and safest food supply, as I have already said, of any country in the world. We intend to keep it that way.
It means that we have to get a lot of agencies and a lot of different groups working together. The country's food safety mandate is shared among different federal departments, as well as with provincial health and agriculture departments and with municipalities.
On the federal level Health Canada is responsible for health related food safety matters; the Department of Fisheries and Oceans looks after fish and fish product safety and quality; while Agriculture and Agri-food Canada is responsible for the quality and safety of agri-food products. It discharges this responsibility through activities including inspection, labelling and pesticide regulation.
Partnership and consultation are keys to the success and to the successful management of a healthy and safe food supply in this country. With so many players involved in the issue of food safety, it is important to ensure that there is consistency, to clarify the roles and eliminate duplication in order to maintain the most efficient food safety system that we possibly can and, quite frankly, that we do have.
Before I get into what the department of agriculture is doing in order to ensure that safety and that the efforts are co-ordinated among all that are involved, I would like to mention the mandate of the department. As I say, different departments are involved in food safety but it has the mandate of agriculture in there.
The main one is the role carried out by the food production and inspection branch, which is the regulatory arm of the department. The food production and inspection branch develops and establishes health and safety standards which the agri-food industry is required to meet. It also sets out to protect the Canadian agriculture industry in controlling the introduction and spread of foreign animal and plant diseases and pests that may enter the country from outside our borders. That indeed is a very important role that it plays as well.
In 1976 that branch was formed and three years later the food inspection directorate was created within the branch. The mandate of that directorate is based on four pieces of legislation: the Canada Agricultural Products Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. From the titles of those people can draw the conclusion of what they basically deal with.
Over the years the food inspection directorate has developed various programs and policies and has provided services to clients that have allowed the Canadian agri-food sector to prosper and be competitive on a world market. The directorate has been instrumental in contributing to the department's high level of credibility in the area of food safety through its ability to handle complex situations and balance, what many times are political, social, scientific and economic interests.
The world is changing but the agriculture and agri-food sectors' commitment to food safety is not changing. What we do have through the food inspection directorate is the relentless determination to carry out the job that needs to be done and we will not let up on that pressure.
Change is happening very rapidly. Today's global economy, as we know, is reshaping the structure of the agri-food industry. There is a stronger emphasis on trade and a significant increase in imports and exports determines and dictates that the consumers' tastes are diversifying. The department has to be able to deal with those increases in imports and the variety of imports that they must inspect and determine their safety and health for Canadians.
The growth in volume in the kind of food imports will place increased pressure on the department. We know that we can meet that with determination. We must meet that and continue the good job that we have done at the same time as improving its efficiency. We have to do what we have done better. We are able to do that and we will have to do it with probably less funding and fewer people. Therefore it is important that we have the co-operation between the provincial and municipal governments and the private sector to carry that out.
For their part as well, the consumers are becoming more aware of food issues. Today's consumers need more information and increased assurances that the food they eat is safe. Now more than ever consumers are very concerned about the effectiveness of food inspection and food inspection programs and how food safety is regulated.
Rapid advances in the agricultural technology area are also having an impact on the product services and markets for food companies. The regulatory framework surrounding these changes needs to be equally responsive and regulations must be in place quickly to allow companies to take advantage of new opportunities while making sure that the food safety and quality concerns are still being met.
Today's agri-food industry is a very different one than it once was. The industry has become more self-regulating and is largely self-reliant, often taking the lead in exploring the new technologies and new methods of productions and processing that are leading to improvements in the agri-food sector. This presents a challenge but not one that we cannot meet and are not meeting. We are doing an excellent job but it is a challenge for government in that it must now try to regulate food safety in areas where we may not have had a lot of activity or participation in the past.
We have put in place initiatives to tackle these new realities successfully and we believe that the answer lies in the development of a revised food inspection system strategy. The department of agriculture, through the food inspection directorate, has been working toward this and has set out a number of initiatives which will lead us to that goal.
One of those initiatives is the national food inspection policy, one of the department's ultimate goals with an objective which was approved by the federal and provincial ministers in Charlottetown at a federal-provincial agriculture ministers meeting last year. It calls for the establishment of common standards between provinces and federal agencies in order to provide for food safety and food disclosures.
The benefits of such a system are many and the efficiencies are many. It will streamline the inspection delivery system. It will enhance market performance and competitiveness. It will reduce trade barriers and regulatory pressures on industry. It will facilitate and harmonize processes and offer a flexible and responsive inspection system.
A national food inspection system is, as I said, a top priority for everyone in the Canadian agri-food inspection area. It will ensure that consumers continue to have access to a high quality
food supply and a safe food supply, and it will ensure the harmonization of national standards.
As well, there is the food safety enhancement program and the general trend across the agencies involved in food inspection to work on a common health and safety standard which will increase mutual recognition of inspection and reduce duplication.
These agencies apply the hazard analysis and critical control points principles to their inspection practices and this is an internationally recognized approach to controlling and monitoring the food processing operations. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is working with industry to implement the principles of the hazard analysis and critical control points program and the department will be consulting with industry on an ongoing basis to develop that program.
As well, there is the common inspection approach at the interdepartmental level which will adopt the principles I just talked about based on an inspection approach being developed through common Government of Canada inspection standards which will be implemented using a mutually accepted audit protocol.
A tremendous amount is going on and has been going on regarding food safety in Canada. The federal departments are now concentrating their efforts on defining the specific requirements for other highly identified risk areas in the food processing industry.
There is also a single access food labelling service. We have had a situation for a number of years in which labelling has been quite cumbersome. One of the results of the recent government reorganization was the consolidation of food labelling activities involving the former Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada which will streamline that operation.
The evidence through these initiatives is very clear. The Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food takes its role very seriously in the food safety area. Food safety is something which every Canadian should not take for granted. We work very hard at maintaining and upgrading our food safety standards in this country and I am certain that everyone can appreciate what an enormous responsibility it is.
In closing, I would like to state that the increased mutual recognition by government departments of inspection should reduce the complexity of dealing with the federal government. This is good news for industry because federal departments will be using common language and common interpretation of regulations as well as uniformity in rating and enforcement at processing establishments.
I said at the beginning that the whole agri-food industry was facing a lot of challenges and opportunities. It reminds me of the story of the commander in a war zone who radioed his platoon officer out in the field. He said to the platoon officer: "Officer, how is it this morning?". The officer said: "Today we have enemy to the left, enemy to the right, enemy in front of us and enemy behind us. We won't miss them this time". I challenge the industry, and I know it is accepting that challenge, to turn that the other way.
Our industry has opportunities in front of us, behind us, to the left and to the right, whether they be in Asia, whether they be in Latin America, whether they be in our neighbour to the south, whether they be in Mexico or whether they be in Europe. The opportunities are there.
I challenge everyone. I look forward to more comments from the opposition members today and input from them. As the minister said clearly this morning, we welcome those. We will consider those. We will put them in the hopper, as the term is used, because we do not want to miss any opportunities there.
I congratulate the industry for the eagerness with which it is meeting the challenges before us and the opportunities before us.
In closing, I want to refer to a festivity that was held in Toronto last night which the minister, I and some others had the privilege to attend. It was the final presentation of the Agri-Food Competitiveness Council. I want to remind everyone of the vision that it wants to keep before the industry and the challenge that is there, one that I know we can meet. I will state that in closing. There is nothing to stop us from being the premier agri-food sector in the world.