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sylvain charlebois

Cuts are looming again at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The federal food safety regulator is facing cuts exceeding 15 per cent, and many employees may lose their jobs over the next three years. At first glance, these cuts may seem extreme, but it appears that Canada is following a global trend of doing less with less in food safety risk management.

Most Canadian consumers are not aware that the federal government spends almost $400-million annually on food safety annually, a higher amount, per capita, than most other industrialized nations. The CFIA now employs more than 7,000 people. As a result of subsequent food safety crises we experienced over the last decade, such as mad cow in 2003, listeria in 2008, and most recently with XL Foods in 2012, our food safety surveillance costs have increased substantially. This all happened without having a full understanding of how efficient our food safety systems were. We simply do not know what the financial threshold is in terms of managing risks across the food industry in Canada. Before investing more, we should know how much we need to spend before making more changes.

Managing risks within food systems now means something different now. The September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States undoubtedly changed many aspects of how we manage and perceive risks as a country, and food systems were not spared. Terrorism, in essence, has made risk management an exercise in bureaucratic rationality, and has become contempt for the public perception of risk.

The science exists to protect the public, and many innovative technologies like radiation and food traceability can assist industry to supply safer foods to Canadians. Too much technocracy in food-safety management has not provided Canadians with a balanced account of the trade-offs between risks and benefits in industrial technologies. The food industry is not out to harm anyone, and to supply unsafe food products to consumers is simply not a sustainable business model. Since governments around the world are facing significant budgetary pressures – including ours – most are divesting in risk surveillance in exchange for partnerships. The most important partnership is between state and consumers themselves. More than 85 per cent of all foodborne illnesses occur as a result of incidences of food contamination in Canadian homes. Risk communication and public health education should remain key components to a sound food safety strategy.

Many consumers are more knowledgeable about systemic risk management than they were just a few years ago. Most accept that to ask governments to inspect every single food product we buy is simply not sustainable and, frankly, irresponsible. What we gain in food surveillance, we lose in food distribution efficiencies. More inspection would likely increase food prices and penalize low-income families. Nonetheless, governments should remain actively involved to ensure industry compliance and public reassurance. The extent and level of involvement, however, merit some clarity and public consensus.

The principle aim for any food safety system is not necessarily to inspect every single product entering the food chain, but rather to plan for every eventuality. Public health officials across the country have already started to work with several partners to better monitor risks across the board, but more is needed. For food imports, we need to think of ways to monitor risks at the source, similar to what other countries are currently doing.

Canadian consumers should worry less about job cuts at the CFIA and more about how governments are actually spending public funds on food safety systems. Most importantly, we need to make sure industry and consumers alike remain accountable to themselves.

Sylvain Charlebois is professor in food distribution and policy and associate dean, College of Management and Economics, at the University of Guelph, and a member of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Expert Advisory Committee

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