BY R. Bruce Striegler

A bouquet of outrage and unanswered questions blossomed across the country this spring following news of budget cuts at Canada’s Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), with the government announcing it would change how CFIA monitors and enforces non-health and non-safety food labelling regulations.

The food agency budget cuts had activist consumers and the Agriculture Union (PSAC) in an uproar, even though details were scarce. Spun by the union and fed to a media that universally loves government-bashing, the stories have been at once frightening but droll. One Canadian daily carried a story thanking the government for hiring Canadians, at no pay, for a new job – monitoring of food-label standards at their local grocery store. A job that most think belongs to government.

This new cost-conscious plan will direct stakeholders (including consumers) to “an online self-assessment labelling tool.” According to CFIA, “This tool will educate stakeholders (e.g. producers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers) and provide necessary information to assist them in correctly applying federal regulations when developing labels or interpreting the requirements.”

At the same time that the agency is sending us to a label-check website, CFIA assures us that, “With regards to label verification activities (checking that the information on the labels reflects what is actually in the product) CFIA inspectors will continue to do this. For example, CFIA may verify a product labelled as containing “0 grams of trans fat” per serving to see if the product truly contains that level.” Only time will tell whether nutritional verification processes will be continued as before. However, it is apparent that nutritional content and ingredient verification are deemed to be important health information by Canadians who are diabetic, suffer from elevated blood pressure, have allergies or have other reasons to watch what they are consuming.

The union is angry about job losses and they have engaged in emotional histrionics about Canadian food safety, but let’s look at some of the other changes CFIA plans on implementing, which so far, have remained largely unreported: CFIA will be removing regulations that restrict the sizes of containers for food.

Currently, processed foods may only be imported and sold in Canada if they are packaged in very specific sizes as prescribed by legislation. Some of these legislated sizes are inconsistent with international standards, requiring costly special packaging production runs if they are to be available to the Canadian market. These cases require CFIA attention and staff resources to monitor and ensure they comply with Canadian laws.

These regulations are outdated, not related to health and safety and limit industry innovation and consumer choice. Container size regulations add unnecessary cost to consumers and taxpayers, so we welcome overdue abolition of these regulations. In addition, the issue of packaging has become a trade irritant, viewed by some in the U.S. as non-tariff trade barriers. Changing CFIA’s role and activities in this area allows the agency to place a greater focus on higher priority activities including health and safety aspects of the food production and regulatory systems.

What neither the union nor the government is telling us, is that with new food safety legislation passed and regulations being drafted in the United States, the thrust of global food safety has changed. As outlined in an article elsewhere in this edition, the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act gives the Food and Drug Administration the mandate to require comprehensive prevention-based controls across the food supply chain. It requires food production companies world-wide to evaluate hazards in their operations, implement and monitor measures to prevent contamination and have a plan to take corrective action if necessary. That is, if they wish to export their product to the United Sates.

The new U.S. laws make food importers responsible for the foreign vendors they are dealing with and the safety verification steps they take to determine where and from whom, the vendors are sourcing their products. According to experts in the Canadian food import – export industry, it is almost inevitable that the Canadian government will adopt similar standards, and that Canadian food importers will be licensed by the government (and some say domestic producers should also be qualified in the same manner). So, they reason, changes in food labelling regulations are minor issues, but point to more common-sense changes at CFIA that will result in greater effectiveness at lower cost.

However the details of the changes actually shake out, CFIA should not be as impaired as some suggest since Budget 2012 provided $51.2 million over two years to be shared by CFIA, Public Health Agency, and Health Canada to enhance surveillance and early detection, and improve response capabilities to food-borne illness emergencies.

Governments often perpetuate decisions and policies implemented years or decades ago without questioning whether new technologies or business practices make it desirable to change these practices, or whether they have continued relevance today. It appears that announced changes at CFIA will benefit us all, both as taxpayers and consumers. If anything, governments at all levels should seriously consider overhauling, re-designing or eliminating out-dated practices to achieve greater cost-effectiveness for taxpayers. Undoubtedly, business turn-around consultants would have a field day!