By Jack Kohane

Agricultural exports to U.S. worth billions

As the world food supply chain becomes increasingly integrated, food safety takes on new complexities. Food sources as well as production and distribution of food products have become more complicated, and more integrated. To ensure safe food for their populations, governments must continue to improve legislation and safety controls, and be certain that regulators have the power to enforce food safety laws as well as provide effective leadership to manage new and emerging food safety risks.

In 2010, trade with the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner, accounted for US$525 billion in two-way trade. The Office of the United States Trade Representative notes that U.S. 2010 imports of agricultural products from Canada totalled US$16.2 billion, the most from any nation. Those imports include $2.7 billion in snack foods (including chocolate). Red meats accounted for $1.5 billion and a further $1.1 billion was in vegetable oils. Canada is the second-largest agricultural importer of American goods, with fresh vegetables and fruit, processed fruit and vegetables the leading products.

The U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)

With so much at stake for Canadian producers, importers and exporters, it’s not surprising that the Canadian food industry is evaluating potential impacts as the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) writes and implements new food safety laws. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) was passed by Congress in 2010 and signed into law by President Obama in 2011, and aims to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus of federal regulators to preventing contamination, rather than responding to contamination after the fact.

Mark FeDuke, CCS, CMILT, Director, Trade Compliance for Montreal’s VLM Foods Inc., says, “There are changes on the horizon for the import food sector on both sides of the border, but these changes are really just an extension of the post 9/11 commercial reality. The fact is food importers in North America will be increasingly held accountable to ensure the security and safety of the goods they bring to market.”

Regulators on both sides of the border are continuing to look at ways to increase their oversight of supply chains, he says. “For the most part, these are operations owned and operated and by private interests, and this has given rise to various trusted trader and trusted traveller programs which give greater market access to companies who demonstrate the concrete steps they are taking to execute meaningful due diligence.”

Food chain suppliers must assume greater responsibility

Those doing business in the customs and supply chain security sector will be familiar with the aims and objectives of supply chain security programs like the Canadian Border Services Agency PIP (Partners in Protection), the U.S. Dept. of Homeland’s C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism) and AEO (Authorised Economic Operator) programs designed to hold importers to greater levels of responsibility for the products they import from foreign suppliers.

For the first time, the FDA has a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, prevention-based controls across the food supply. It does so by requiring food facilities to evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination, and have a plan in place to take any corrective actions that are necessary.

It also requires the FDA to establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or death. This new ability to hold food companies accountable for preventing contamination is a significant milestone in the efforts to modernize the food safety system.

New laws demand verification

Among the new rules to be written are directives pertaining to the sanitary transport of foods and specific preventive controls in food production, but the sector that will see the greatest impact will be the import food sector. Mr. FeDuke says, “FSMA now provides the FDA with the legislative authority to execute mandatory food recalls and as FSMA rolls out, food importers must identify to regulators what steps they have taken to verify the sources of the food they import are safe.”

He adds, “Highly compliant food importers will be eligible for participation in the FDA’s Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP), which will allow trusted importers to benefit from expedited entry into the USA, and one might presume that those importers who don’t qualify for VQIP ought to expect even greater scrutiny from the FDA moving forward. Food importers can expect to be increasingly held accountable for ensuring the safety of the foods they source from foreign producers.“

Canada’s Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) continues to work on Canada’s Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan, and Mr. FeDuke points to initiatives for importers to consider. Mr. FeDuke says the Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan will likely lead to mandatory licensing of food importers in the non-federally registered sector, which could be a fee-based licensing system, requiring importers to attest to the food safety controls they are executing to ensure the security and safety of the products they import.

The Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan is a multi-year plan to increase Canada’s regulatory and safety legislation with an emphasis on preventing problems before they become a hazard to the public, by targeting the highest risk problems and being prepared to respond quickly to problems if they do occur. The Canadian government is also working with the United States on a joint action plan called Beyond the Border, which aims to better protect both countries from offshore food safety, animal and plant health risks by conducting joint assessments and audits of food sources and food safety systems in third countries.

When safety expectations are not met

“The challenge, from an import perspective, is that food today is moved globally,” says Dr. Keith Mussar, Vice President Regulatory Affairs for Toronto-based Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters (I.E.Canada). “Consumers want pineapples 365 days a year, so demand dictates we import the product,” adds Mussar, Chair of the association’s food committee. He emphasizes that everyone is concerned about food safety. “Canadian consumers assume all food sold in Canada is safe and it has become an expectation in order for an importer or manufacturer to sell food products in Canada.”

There are about 6.5 million cases of reported food poisoning in Canada each year, with statistics indicating that only 1 in 10 are actually reported, according to the Importers Food Safety Workbook, co-authored by Mussar. The rest, he states, are dismissed as “24-hour flu.” Approximately .01 per cent of food poisoning incidences are fatal, which means that 650 Canadians die annually from improperly manufactured food. Estimates are that each of us will have 15 episodes of food poisoning in our lifetime. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the figure for food-borne disease at 48 million every year, with 128,000 annual hospitalizations and 3,000 yearly deaths.

Over the past five years, the total number of food recall incidents in Canada has been relatively stable, averaging about 225 annually. Of these, imported food has accounted, on average, for 43 per cent or almost 100 recall incidents.

Targeting problems at the source

Canada’s approach to the safety of imported foods is a risk-based system, meaning the risks associated with food can be qualified and quantified in a number of ways. Those include hazards in certain food (toxins, allergens, chemicals, parasites, and bacteria), the number of food-borne illnesses associated with certain food (Salmonella and Listeria), and the number of product recalls associated with certain food. For imports, CFIA considers other factors such as the food safety controls in the country of origin and compliance history of the manufacturer or importer.

Based on risk assessment, CFIA targets where food safety concerns persist. According to CFIA’s Ottawa-based spokesperson Alice d’Anjou, the country of origin of a particular food product is not in itself a determining factor for inspection frequency.

“When a problem area is identified, directed programs may be put into place. For example, due to a history of non-compliance relating to canned mushrooms, China worked with Canada to introduce a pre-clearance program, whereby importers source product from specific establishments. Importers are further required to submit test results from shipments to demonstrate Canadian requirements are being met.”

Food safety a shared international goal

Among CFIA’s inspection staff of about 4,900 are field inspectors stationed at many of Canada’s international airports, ports and land border crossings. Ms. d’Anjou points out that many CFIA inspectors’ activities are dedicated to imported food. For example, a Montreal-based CFIA inspector who inspects fish spends much of his or her time on imports as the majority of fresh fish consumed in Canada is from all over the world.

Asked if Canadian consumers can be assured that food freighted in from other countries has not been sprayed with banned substances or not deliberately contaminated, d’Anjou responds that CFIA works with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, international food producers, manufacturers, importers and exporters. “While detailed standards may vary from country to country, food safety is a shared international goal,” she says.

Regular audits of the food inspection systems of foreign countries are conducted by CFIA. The goal is to verify that the foreign system is working as intended, and that the resulting product is meeting Canadian food safety requirements. In addition to those foreign reviews, CFIA teams with other jurisdictions, including the European Union, the U.S., and Australia, to share foreign country assessment reports. Specifically for China, CFIA works with authorities in that nation on specific concerns and conducts formal audits.

Public and private sector monitoring

CFIA’s National Chemical Residue Monitoring Program carries out over 220,000 tests of food samples (domestic and imported) each year for contaminants, including veterinary drugs, agricultural chemicals, industrial and environmental pollutants and natural toxins. On average, according to d’Anjou, less than two per cent of these thousands of samples exceed maximum residue limits set by Health Canada.

One food processor and importer that spreads its food safety net wide is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia-based High Liner Foods Inc., which sources 90 per cent of the fish and shellfish it sells from resources caught wild in the world’s oceans and seas, with the remainder from selected fish and shellfish farms. “Finished products are regularly sampled and sent to outside certified government-approved laboratories for testing,” says Claude Labelle, Quality Manager of Imports. “If the fish or shellfish do not meet Canadian standards, High Liner Foods does not purchase the product.”

High Liner Foods products are delivered to Canada from many countries, including Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Japan, Chile and the U.S. The product from every producer is inspected at the source and certificates of analysis are sent to High Liner’s Quality Assurance staff for review. The product is also inspected once in Canada, following CFIA’s sampling plan. High Liner uses the same frequency of inspection as CFIA, but also requires co-packers to have these tests performed by a federally approved laboratory within their country of origin for every container.

Will funding cuts and layoffs jeopardize safety?

In August 2011, the government announced that it will be “withdrawing” inspectors from plants that produce meat for local consumption in B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2014. The provinces will have to create new inspection regimes and hire new staff to implement them, a move that officials from B.C.’s Ministry of Health were quoted as saying would be “more expensive” for the province. In January 2012, Bob Kingston, President of the Agriculture Union – Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents federal food inspectors, revealed government plans to cut $21.5 million in funding and reduce staff by 200 positions.

Mr. Kingston’s objections to government plans were expressed previously in an article in the Ottawa Citizen where he wrote, “CFIA is too broke to keep unsafe imported products from store shelves. Canada’s import food inspection is a patchwork that ignores some products, while others are examined, with little apparent logic to explain why.”

Kingston wrote that proactive testing and inspection, other than trend monitoring or project work, is beyond the scope of CFIA’s current front line inspection resources. “In fact, the inspection of food imports in Canada is one of the weakest components of CFIA’s work … stopping unsafe food from reaching grocery shelves is not the purpose of import inspection, and less than two per cent of food imported into Canada is inspected.

Gerry Ritz, Federal Minister of Agriculture, responds that the government has made real and significant investments to ensure the safety of Canada’s food supply and Canadian families can be assured safety will not be affected as federal departments look for more financially prudent ways to deal with food safety.

Mussar also counters the criticism, affirming his belief that Canada boasts one of the strongest random testing programs anywhere. He stresses that imported foods are under constant surveillance. “We’re always revisiting how and what we are testing, how often these tests are being done. Not everything crossing our borders can be tested, but there are enough done to know what’s being shipped in.”

– With files from R. Bruce Striegler