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

Every day, a rising tide of foreign food makes its way onto Canadian grocery shelves, the vast majority of it entering this country untouched by federal inspectors.

Last year, the import count included more than 33 million litres of apple juice from China; 11.8 million kilograms of pickles and relish from India and 4.9 million kilograms of cashews from Vietnam.

All are part of the two-decade-long surge that has made imported food – often from developing countries – a significant component of the Canadian diet. All of it is grown or processed far beyond the reach of Canada’s food inspection system, which – contrary to what consumers might expect – is still struggling to catch up to the reality of a global food market.

Critics say Canada’s ability to safeguard its citizens from the risks of both domestic and imported food is falling behind – charges levelled even as efforts are under way at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to update practices for the 21st-century global marketplace.

“Food safety in Canada, believe it or not, is an accident. It really is,” Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food-safety expert and CFIA adviser, says.

“We're entering a period, and have been for 10 years, where all of a sudden this whole area of imported foods has changed dramatically in terms of its size ... and the CFIA has proven to be incapable of dealing with [this] using the old inspection mentality. It just doesn’t work.”

Now, Canada’s chief of food safety is preparing to rewrite the rules governing foreign food to require that companies importing so-called primary farm products – meat, fruit or vegetables – be able to pinpoint these goods’ point of origin abroad.

This would be a big step, if only a partial solution, to make it easier and faster for Ottawa to launch recalls of unsafe imports and, over time, give the federal government a better sense of where risks lie.

Today, The Globe and Mail begins a week-long series on the global marketplace for food, and how Canada has yet to come to terms with the regulatory, economic and technological challenges of global food.

A flood of foreign food

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s plan for a basic, though limited, “traceability” system for foreign food is part of the 13-year-old watchdog’s efforts to grapple with rising volumes of offshore products filling grocery store shelves. Today, foreign food makes up 15 to 20 per cent of this country’s diet.

Importers are not currently required by Ottawa to provide documentation that traces a primary food product to its origin. Some food retailers and importers may, however, already collect this information for their own commercial purposes.

This is the first step toward what Chief Food Safety Officer Brian Evans says will one day be a full-fledged system that also covers multi-ingredient foods – one that would allow Ottawa to trace back each component of foreign food to where it originated.

Consumers have become more wary about imported food after a series of food scares over the past half decade, from cancer-causing fungicides in Asian fish imports to toxic Chinese chemicals in pet foods produced by a Toronto company to dioxins in Belgian chocolates.

The CFIA came under fire from its own auditor two months ago who found that foreign foods, from fresh fruit to spices, are crossing the border without proper inspection to ensure they’re safe.

Weeks before the audit was released, the agency launched consultations in an effort to patch holes in CFIA monitoring. It plans to require licensing of imports in what’s called the non-federally regulated sector, a range of goods not explicitly targeted by federal legislation including beverages, candy, cereals, seasonings and baked products.

But Dr. Evans plans to go further, saying his agency intends to propose that importers be required to document the origin of all “ single entity products” – as opposed to multi-ingredient goods – they bring into Canada. These would include fish, eggs, leafy greens, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables,” he offered as examples.

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