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Part 1: The quest to put some bite into foreign food inspections Add to ...

It’s a response to the increasing complexity of globalized food production.

Retailers have a tremendous stake in protecting public confidence in their brand and with the foreign content in Canadians diet rising, Ottawa more than ever needs to be able to rapidly recall unsafe foods – to limit the scope of the problem.

Ottawa’s plan to require companies to provide information that traces primary food products back to their source will force new costs on companies, consumers and, inevitably, taxpayers. Dr. Evans couldn’t say when Ottawa might advance to the next step and require foreign food importers to be able to provide full traceability of all ingredients.

The food-safety chief predicted it would be three to seven years before the technology and capacity to do so becomes more feasible. The tools exist today but are too expensive to implement, experts say.

However, the University of Manitoba’s Dr. Holley says a push for traceability is not a priority when there are other problems with food safety, including a lack of comprehensive information on what is making Canadians sick. “It's like putting a sunroof on a car that has bald tires.”

Dr. Evans said he expects government will have to help fund the traceability system to at least get the ball rolling. The Canadian government’s already disbursed cash to underwrite tracing systems in the domestic cattle and sheep industries, where the risks of such illnesses as mad-cow disease have forced this tracking. “I think government will have basically set the table.”

Ultimately however, the private sector and consumers will bear the costs of compliance.

One problem faced in convincing businesses to adopt tracing systems is the cost, which remains hard to estimate. Radio transponders that could be scanned cost 30 cents per tag – too expensive for many products.

It’s very hard to estimate the final cost to importers or consumers. The price tag of the U.S. system to keep track of cattle from farm to slaughter has been estimated to cost $200-million (U.S.) annually – but this is relatively small when compared to the $73-billion in retail beef sales in 2009. That’s a compliance cost equal to 0.3 per cent of sales.

Dr. Evans, echoing the views of other food safety experts, predicts consumers may balk at higher prices. “There will be a reluctance on the part of consumers to absorb those costs. They see it, I suspect, as an obligation of the food production system to have that degree of accountability and traceability.”

Many big private companies will have no problems complying, he predicts, while warning that those producers who fail to do so will find themselves shut out of the Canadian marketplace.

“We will find ourselves increasingly in a circumstance where ... there will be people who are forced out of the supply chain if they are not prepared to make those investments. It will be a herding process.”

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