Canada's food safety vulnerable during U.S. shutdown, policy expert warns
Shoppers browse the vegetables on display in a grocery store. (Goran Bogicevic / shutterstock.com)
Published Thursday, January 17, 2019 10:02AM EST
The quality of American food imports coming to Canada could be affected by the prolonged partial government shutdown in the U.S., according to one food policy expert.
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said he’s concerned about a disruption in regulatory oversight in the industry because of the shutdown’s impact on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA, which oversees 80 per cent of all food facilities in the country, ceased all inspections when the shutdown began on Dec. 22. On Tuesday, however, the federal agency announced they would resume some of their inspections at high-risk manufacturing and processing plants.
Charlebois said Canada imports more than $16 billion worth of food from the U.S. every year. According to a market intelligence brief he prepared for NAFTA negotiations last summer, the U.S. supplies Canada with 94 per cent of its imported beef, 83 per cent of its imported pork and ham, and 62 per cent of its imported fresh vegetables.
“We’re very dependent on the U.S. to actually feed ourselves, particularly when it comes to produce in the winter,” Charlebois told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Thursday.
That’s why the food policy expert said he’s watching how the U.S. partial government shutdown is affecting the industry there.
“We’re somewhat vulnerable to the food safety practices in the United States, so anything that would go wrong in the United States would eventually affect us,” he explained.
Although the reduced number of inspections may seem alarming, Charlebois said this actually isn’t the problem because most U.S. food producers employ their own inspectors and conduct regular third-party audits. He said the FDA doesn’t conduct daily inspections and most facilities are only required to be inspected every other year.
The real concern, according to Charlebois, is the lapse in regulatory oversight. This includes following up on investigations, tracking trends, and identifying possible threats to food safety.
“If the FDA is actually out and not doing anything, who’s making the industry accountable?” he asked. “That’s the problem.”
Charlebois pointed to the romaine lettuce recall as a perfect example of the importance of oversight in the industry. Although it took months, the government agency was eventually able to trace the source of the outbreak to a farm in California and take regulatory action.
If another outbreak occurred somewhere in the U.S., Charlebois said it would be difficult to investigate it with the FDA not operating at full capacity.
“A lot has happened since Dec. 22,” he said. “That work stoppage may have created some gaps in the system.”
What it means for Canada
Charlebois said he doesn’t think Canadians should be worried; however, he thinks the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and importers need to pay attention to the developments in the U.S.
Because the U.S. and Canada are such close trading partners, the CFIA and FDA regularly share import and export data. Charlebois said the CFIA will likely have more difficulty getting information from the FDA so long as the shutdown persists.
“If nobody actually is on the other side of the phone answering questions, it’s hard to really have confidence in a system you don’t control,” he said.
The food policy professor said he suspects the CFIA is taking extra precautions and approaching the situation with “extreme prudence.”
A spokesperson for the CFIA said the agency “remains vigilant” when it comes to food safety concerns.
“All food and agricultural products sold in Canada, whether domestic or imported, must comply with Canadian laws and regulations,” the agency said in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca. “Meat inspection delivered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory operations in support of this program are continuing.”
The CFIA added that it hasn’t received an indication of any food concerns at this time.
“Our ongoing import surveillance, inspections and controls continue to apply and if we become aware of problems with imported products from the U.S., appropriate action will be taken,” the spokesperson said.
Charlebois said he’s comforted by how the Canadian food industry mitigated the risk coming from the U.S. during the romaine lettuce scare. He said, at the industry level, grocers led the way by pulling lettuce from their shelves before a recall was issued.
Charlebois said he suspects the industry would apply a similar strategy in the event of another safety concern.
Finally, Charlebois said the CFIA will have better tools to source a potential outbreak from the U.S. thanks to the new regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which came into effect on Jan. 15.
Under the new system, Canadian food producers – including those who import – will have to register for a license with the agency.
“If you do import products from the U.S., the CFIA will know who you are, where you are, and what you’re importing,” Charlebois said.