Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate on Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
My hon. colleagues from Laval and Victoria, who spoke earlier, focused on the health aspect and on advertising. Other aspects of this bill also drew my attention. In an effort to keep our viewers at home from losing interest—although the members' presentations were far from boring—I will change the subject somewhat. I will branch off and address the new powers that will be given to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Since I am the agriculture critic for my party, I know it is something that concerns us deeply. People from the Union des producteurs agricoles have also stated their position on the matter.
As we were saying earlier, we in the Bloc Québécois feel it is important that this bill move forward through the legislative process to the committee. This bill raises a number of questions. We have tried to touch on many aspects, but we must ensure that everything is done correctly. That is why we will be very vigilant in committee. I am convinced that my colleague from Laval, as well as my colleague from Québec, who takes care of the health file, will be able to give this bill, if it ever passes, a thorough analysis that will address the concerns of most people.
This bill was introduced at the same time as Bill C-52, which I also spoke to here in this House. We had the opportunity to talk about it earlier this week.
These two bills have to do with health, but they also touch on the agrifood aspect. While Bill C-52 has to do with the safety of consumer products, Bill C-51 could introduce certain measures that I will describe here. During my presentation, I will also explain the traceability system and the recall management system. We are talking about a framework to eliminate damaging effects on health, as well as other areas, but I will focus primarily on those aspects of Bill C-51.
The bill deals with the advertising of drugs, their marketing, approval and traceability. Since we have already had an opportunity to hear about advertising, I will concentrate on traceability, as well as the new powers assigned to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency under the provisions of this bill, which was announced some time ago, at the same time Bill C-52 was announced.
According to a spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, that agency could intervene as soon as a potential health risk became known concerning food imported into Canada. The CFIA could obtain a more precise evaluation of the risk from the country concerned. It could also ask that country for additional evidence of inspection, and standards equivalent to those imposed on our own manufacturers or producers, and of course, not more stringent because of international agreements. We cannot require other countries to impose standards that are more severe than those we apply to our own producers or manufacturers for the very simple reason that we would be contravening the laws and regulations of the World Trade Organization.
However, it is very important that people should know that at present there are still no reciprocal standards. We have said that for a long time and I will have more to say in that regard.
Therefore, unfortunately, under the rules, there are still some products or foods that come into Canada, for example, fruit and vegetables that may come from China—we are always talking about that country—or from India, but also from the United States, on which pesticides, insecticides or certain chemical fertilizers that are forbidden in Canada and in Quebec have been used. In fact, those products are allowed in those countries. It is their choice. I do not necessarily dispute that. They have the right to use the pesticides they want.
Nevertheless, one thing certain is that, here in Canada, there is a very large and well-developed awareness of food safety. We want to use fewer of these products, even though, sometimes, we do not really have a choice. However, we must ensure that where fruit and vegetables are treated in other countries with products that are forbidden in Canada, they cannot cross our border and be sold on the shelves of our grocery stores.
I am very anxious to see that in the application of the law. Undoubtedly, we will look at that issue in committee. Bill C-51 should correct a weakness that we have pointed out many times here in the House, in debate or through questions.
Every time that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes to speak to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, we discuss this. It would be great news if we were able to make these improvements to the inspections.
According to Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson Robert Charlebois—not to be confused with the singer—who was quoted in the April 24 edition of La Terre de chez nous, the Agency will even be able to test products believed to be at risk before they clear customs. That would be a solution to the problem I mentioned earlier. If that were the case, it would be very good.
The Agency currently intervenes when a problem arises, but not before. A number of foods have been recalled from store shelves. When the Agency knows, it does a good job. It issues the recall and the product is removed from the shelves. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement.
We cannot wait until someone gets sick to take action, although it must be done, since bad things can happen. However, if the Agency had the power, the possibility or the means to intervene before the product even hits the shelves, imagine how many illnesses we could prevent. Cross your fingers. We have not had any deaths, as they have in other countries when a person ingests some of these products, but it happens. We cannot kid ourselves; it happens. There are people in poor health who may ingest foods contaminated with salmonella or what have you, and can die.
It is important to do everything we can to ban these products and ensure that they will not be sold before they hit the shelves, and certainly before they end up on our tables and in our mouths.
The Bloc Québécois is calling on the government to intervene if products enter Quebec and Canada that do not meet our health standards. We have been demanding this for a long time and we will continue to do so.
We also denounced this lack of control over food and other imported goods, and we demanded that the government clean up its legislation in order to eliminate shortcomings that subject the health of Canadians to the goodwill of importers. In this regard, I recently read an article in the April 2 edition of the newspaper Le Soleil. It is very short but nonetheless very revealing. It says:
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) admits that unsafe food from other countries may be made available to consumers, which is a concern for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The article is referring to the Quebec minister. It continues:
In the past three years, Canada has had to recall dozens of foods that may have been contaminated.
Michel Labrosse, the Agency's national import operations manager, remarks that people have the impression that the government controls everything, but that is not the case. He noted that unlike meat and eggs, which have a good tracing system, vegetables or processed goods may only have a seal of goodwill from importers and their business partners.
Safety is left primarily up to the importers who, according to Mr. Labrosse, act in good faith 98% of the time.
I do not know whether this is a statistic that Mr. Labrosse truly obtained from the department or if that was his approximation. Nonetheless, if 2% of importers are not doing their job, whether intentionally or not—naturally we hope that it is not intentional but the thought of the money may result in goods not suitable for consumption being put on the market—that is 2% too much.
I will continue with the article from Le Soleil:
Marion Nestlé, a professor at the University of New York, believes that there are holes in the food systems of Canada and the United States that may let in bacteria and other harmful substances. Two years ago, three Americans died and almost 200 others became ill after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli.
I was talking about this earlier. You will remember that American spinach was also removed from our grocery stores.
According to Michel Labrosse, perfectly shaped and blemish free products sought after by consumers have a greater risk of having pesticide or herbicide residues.
I believe that consumers increasingly want good quality products. Regarding appearance, if people notice that a product's appearance is perhaps less shiny because no pesticides or herbicides were used, they may well choose that fruit or vegetable that does not look as great as the bright, shiny ones next to it. They will wonder whether the better looking product was sprayed with all sorts of substances. Consumers are increasingly aware of that kind of thing and they make informed decisions concerning their health and that of their families.
In my speech on Bill C-52 this week, I gave examples of such tainted products: cantaloupe, spinach, which was just mentioned, melamine-tainted pork, pear juice, and carrot juice, all in recent months alone. As we can imagine, there have been many recalls over the past few years. That is why I also called for enhanced inspection powers and, more importantly, the hiring of additional inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
We should make it clear that it is not up to farm producers to pay for the increased inspections and inspection staff. I think that the government's budget can handle the cost of developing an appropriate inspection system. I also pointed out earlier this week that the government had lacked judgment, which prompted a reaction from the Minister of Labour. Perhaps what I meant to say was that the government had been remiss. Considering how long it has been aware of the problem, it should have acted much sooner. I am not going back on what I said, far from it. It is never too late to do the right thing.
All those who were made sick by food they ate that should never have passed inspection here must be telling themselves that they might have been spared the inconvenience had there been more inspections and more inspectors. I think that any parent who has seen his or her child get sick after eating something knows what I am talking about.
So the existing law has to be modernized to reflect new approaches when it comes to safety and traceability. We are told that this is what Bill C-51 does. We intend to send this bill to committee so we can be sure that this will actually be the case. For example, we are told that all importers will have to have a licence. Today, that is only required for importers of meat and fish. The requirement will be expanded to have licences for all food importers, and that is a good thing.
This brings me to the importance of traceability. In Quebec, Agri-Traçabilité Québec was set up in 2001. The mission of Agri-Traçabilité Québec is to contribute to improving food safety and the competitive capacity of Quebec producers. That institution is responsible for developing, implementing and operating a permanent identification system for agricultural product traceability, and covers both animal and plant products. This is what is called the tracking principle, from field to table.
Quebec is well ahead of many countries and also the other provinces, and I am not saying that to pat ourselves on the back. That is what we must be aiming for. It is a good thing that it was developed in Quebec. We are very proud of it, and now it has to serve as an example for the rest of Canada. Whether we like it or not, interprovincial trade means that we are obviously going to be getting food that also comes from the other provinces, and this has to be expanded to other countries as well.
Agricultural producers in Quebec are the first in America to have access to such a highly developed traceability system. It allows for accurate identification of the source of a problem and makes it possible to contain it in order to avoid it becoming endemic or spreading throughout the processing and distribution chain all the way to consumers.
Consumers therefore have greater confidence in our products, in an era when we are affected by irreparable harms, when we think about what happened during the mad cow crisis or the avian flu. We think it does not affect us, but in British Columbia there were poultry destroyed because of a pandemic.
So we are not immune to it. I am also thinking about foot and mouth disease. But I will not list every disease and problem that might arise in cattle, poultry or other livestock. Clearly food safety is a matter of great concern.
Consumers, producers and the entire agri-food industry cannot help but rejoice in the idea that stricter measures and additional resources to enforce them will soon be in place. We will ensure that this happens. And that is what Food & Consumer Products of Canada said in their announcement about Bills C-51 and C-52 in a press release on April 8, from which I will quote a few lines.
The legislation’s focus on risk-based inspection, accountability for importers and strengthening recall provisions for quick intervention when problems arise, would significantly improve Canada’s ability to detect contaminated food and consumer products...Focusing on imported goods from countries or companies with a history of problems just makes sense. Increasing our ability to scrutinize and oversee imports based on risk greatly enhances our ability to detect threats to public health without crippling commerce or violating our trade commitments.
That shows that there are positives to consider in this bill. That is what my colleague from Québec, health critic for the Bloc Québécois, and I conveyed in this House on April 1 when we questioned the government about food inspections. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's failure to monitor imported products is resulting in a lower level of compliance for foodstuffs, thereby threatening food safety for consumers. We demanded food security measures, and we have no intention of letting up simply because this bill has been introduced.
We have already mentioned that the Quebec government and a number of experts have denounced the failure to monitor imported food. This situation not only threatens consumers, but also producers because the imported products do not meet the same standards as local products, as Christian Lacasse, president of UPA, said.
I think that I have gone into enough detail about this issue over the past few minutes for the people to understand how important it is to us that there be reciprocity with respect to standards for pesticides, insecticides and herbicides in the countries with which we trade. It is unacceptable that chemical products banned here, such as pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and some fertilizers, can be used on foods produced in other countries that end up on our grocery store shelves.
I look forward to seeing if Bill C-51 will bring about any real changes to this state of affairs. It is time for the government to demand trade reciprocity. That is why the committee will be especially vigilant in its work to ensure that the necessary resources to enforce the new rules are clearly provided for in the bill.
I see the time, and I get the feeling that I do not have much left, but I want to say that some of the objectives in this bill need to be emphasized, such as avoiding problems by instituting broader targets for potentially unsafe food imports, increasing the government's power to prevent problems by requiring the industry to implement monitoring for unsafe foods, and expressly forbidding the modification of foods. We also want to improve targeted monitoring by increasing the government's power to verify food safety at all points along the supply chain, including before they are imported into Canada.
I have often said that it is important to go to the source to see exactly how foods are grown. We need to know that. We need to do that. If foods are not produced in accordance with our environmental standards, even if it is just a problem with the water used to grow the food, we should simply tell those countries that their products cannot come here.
In conclusion, we also want to support rapid intervention by creating a new power that requires those modifying foods to keep files, by improving access to the information needed to follow up efficiently on problems that arise, and by modernizing and simplifying inspection systems. If we achieve that, it will be a step in the right direction.