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

“We would like to have country of origin traceability requirements as part of the first set of regulations going forward. We would like to see that in 18 to 24 months.”

However, he said, the timing and final details of such a plan is up to the Harper government.

Flashlight inspections

Two decades ago, a comparatively small volume of imported food made its way into Canada – much of it from the United States. The CFIA didn’t even exist until 1997.

But trade liberalization and big advances in shipping and cold storage technology made it easier during the 1990s for meat and fresh fruits and vegetables to reach Canadian grocery shelves. An increasing yen for international goods – driven by Canada’s increasingly diverse population – and a growing hankering for year-round access to fresh fruits – helped drive demand.

The dollar value of food imported into Canada, when adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled between 1990 and 2009 to exceed $26-billion. The number of countries that ship food here has grown from 143 in 1990 to more than 190 today.

The federal government’s food monitoring mechanism is not the all-encompassing security blanket one might suppose.

It’s more like a flashlight, focusing for a time on a problem area and then sweeping away to a new target. For the most part, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency might better be called the Canadian Food Spot Check Agency.

Roughly about 1 to 2 per cent of foreign food imports that enter Canada are inspected. The agency heavily inspects some products such as meat and also pays closer attention to goods that have a history of carrying food-borne illness – such as fish or leafy greens or eggs.

But this means that when it comes to the other 98 or 99 per cent of food shipments, Canadians must rely on private retailers importing the products, such as Loblaws, to enforce Canada’s standards. Or they must trust the sanitation and safety rules of the country where the food originated.

Bob Kingston, the head of the union representing Canada’s federal food inspectors, said inspection programs are under funded and bare-bones compared to what staff request.

Mr. Kingston estimated that only “a couple of hundred” of the CFIA’s 4,700 inspection staff focus on foreign food – a figure the agency rejects.

But food-safety experts say it doesn’t make sense to screen more products as they enter Canada, in part because the added benefits of doubling or tripling inspections would not yield a statistically significant reduction in risk. “A meat plant will produce the equivalent of hamburger about size of your house in a couple of days,” says Ron Doering, a former president of the CFIA.

“Well, if you test the little square inch at your front door, it doesn’t tell anything abut what’s in the hamburger up in your bedroom.”

Big food retailers, such as Loblaws, Safeway or Metro, now play a key role in protecting Canadians from unsafe food. Their motivation in this tight-profit margin business? Protecting their brand, says Mr. Doering, now a lawyer at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Ottawa. A food recall can damage their sales: “They know that if you get a big hit that can kill you ... it will hurt your share value, it will hurt your brand value and what’s the one thing that these big food companies have: their brand.”

The CFIA argues that the absence of big problems shows the system works. In any given day, Dr. Evans says, about 100-million meals are eaten in Canada – which works out to about 36.5 billion meals at year. And what’s going wrong? There are about 250 to 300 recalls of food each year following inspections or consumer complaints. Canadians also suffer an estimated 11- million cases of acute gastroenteritis each year – a relatively minor amount – and one that federal authorities suggest is largely due to food preparation mistakes or bad hygiene rather than substandard imports.

A new recipe for regulation

The traceability rules being developed at the CFIA represent a model of regulation that harnesses the private sector’s economic motives to ensure a more agile response to foreign food problems in the future.

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