National Newswatch

The public needs to hear how the food regulatory system ensures safety.


Ottawa—The federal government could provide an important assist to the agrifood sector as it prepares to launch its initiative to build public trust in the safety of Canadian produced foods, says Susie Miller, Executive Director of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops.

Miller, who was the facilitator for the Public Trust Steering Committee set up by the Canadian Center for Food Integrity and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the government needs to start telling the public how well the food regulatory system works.

“Canada has very strong regulations for food and environmental safety,” she told the Commons agriculture committee, which is studying the public perception of the agrifood sector and how trust in it could be enhanced.

“Regulators are focused on communicating with the regulated parties, as they must, to make sure that they understand the requirements that are placed on them, but they’re not as successful at communicating those regulations and their impacts to Canadians,” Miller said. “If Canadians don’t understand the regulatory system then it doesn’t contribute to the public trust that our food is produced safely and sustainably.”

Statistics Canada collects considerable data on environmental farm practices that could contribute to the safety message, she said. “Not only will these results establish our environmental performance and compliance with parts of the code of practice that we are developing, it will help identify weaknesses for us so that we know where to focus corrective action.

“Because these surveys are periodic, it helps show continuous improvement, which Canadians and international markets are interested in. Statistics Canada and Agriculture Canada are only resourced to publish a limited amount of that data, so our ability to use it is heavily compromised. We need a cost-effective and timely mechanism to have those results for reporting back to Canadians.”

Government also needs to provide up-to-date research data on the environmental performance of farmers. “The latest indicators available are 2011, and an update isn’t planned until 2021,” she said. “We require a priority placed on those data series as soon as possible for credibility but also to take into consideration improvements that have been made in the last 10 years. Research from Environment Canada on greenhouse gas and water quality are also critical to us.”

Ron Bonnett, Co-Chair of the Public Trust Steering Committee and past president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the public trust issue “has been building steam over the last few years. I think the ability of social media to put out misinformation about farming practices, how we care for our animals, how we grow our crops, the types of products that we’re using has presented a challenge.”

The agrifood industry realized it needed “to get in front of some of the misinformation that was out there in order to ensure that we maintain the confidence of consumers.”

The issue affects the entire agrifood sector, he said. “Everyone is involved and that there was a need for co-ordination. I think there’s a responsibility of individual commodities to deal with the public trust issues that they have but over that, there’s a need to co-ordinate some of the responses, take a look at best practices and things like that when you’re addressing the public trust issue.”

A home for the Public Trust initiative still has to be agreed on along with “a governance system so that all of the different commodities and all of the different players, processors, retailers and the general public are connected into this discussion as well,” he said.

Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist and writes for domestic and international publications about agriculture, food and transportation issues. He’s also the author of two science fiction novels with more in the works.
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