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

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

"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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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