The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is losing sight of one of its original roles and that could undermine the government’s goal of boosting agrifood exports to $75 billion by 2025, says Ron Doering, a former president of the Agency.
In his latest Food Law column, Doering said, “Too many at the CFIA seemed to have forgotten that in addition to its primary role to protect the health and safety of Canadians, the CFIA also has a clear legislative mandate to help the commercial interests of Canadian industry.”
When government officials including Doering launched consultations with industry in 1995 on the creation of centralized food inspection, “all sectors expressed grave concern that while consolidating 16 programs delivered by four different departments might promote efficiency and effectiveness and provide a single point of contact for consumers, industry and the provinces, such consolidation might also result in an erosion of the longstanding understanding that while safe food was the overarching priority, all programs also had an important role in promoting the commercial health of the various sectors,” he said.
“To answer this fear, we changed the draft legislation to specify that the Minister responsible for the CFIA would be the Minister of Agriculture and we built right into the legislation that the CFIA’s mandate included the promotion of trade and commerce. Without this solemn promise to industry, it’s unlikely that the CFIA would have been created.”
Doering has heard from many in food processing that CFIA is giving less time, resources and attention to the sector. The situation “has been seriously worsening in the last three years since the Conservative government changed the primary reporting relationship of the CFIA to the Minister of Health.”
Another complaint he’s heard is that “most CFIA inspectors now seem to think their sole role is consumer protection and market access is just not part of their job,” he said. “Another added that increasingly, and particularly in the last few years, the culture of the CFIA is that they’re in the public health business; the health of the industry is none of their concern.”
As for achieving the increase in exports, “the agrifood business, unlike many other industry sectors, cannot even begin to achieve its potential unless the government does its job,” he said. That includes “a clear, responsive and well implemented regulatory system that will serve to improve competitiveness, enhance investment and promote innovation.”
The government also needs to remind CFIA “that it’s also their responsibility to help industry gain greater market access and then adequately resource this function,” he said. The industry has told Paul Glover, the new CFIA President, about “the need to change attitudes and to reinvigorate the market access function. This is a good start but real progress will require a united and sustained push.”
Inspecting for safe food and promoting market access are not conflicting objectives, Doering said. “The most important marketing advantage for the Canadian food industry is Canada’s reputation for safe food and the credibility of our rigorous regulatory system. Putting the whole food chain—seeds, feeds, fertilizer, plant protection, animal health, all food commodities including fish—under the same umbrella agency created a real opportunity for a more comprehensive and focused approach to promoting international market access for Canadian products.
“Moreover, still unique in the world, we would have one agency to negotiate equivalency agreements and other arrangements for access,” he said. “Many products can only be exported if they first receive CFIA certification. That is how we export food, plants and animals to more than 100 countries, usually without re-inspection.”