Speech on Food Safety (S-11)

I rise today to speak to Bill S-11, An Act respecting food commodities, including their inspection, their safety, their labelling and advertising, their import, export and interprovincial trade, the establishment of standards for them, the registration or licensing of persons who perform certain activities related to them, the establishment of standards governing establishments where those activities are performed and the registration of establishments where those activities are performed.

The bill would streamline a range of existing food safety legislation under one act. Among other legislation, it would repeal and replace the Fish Inspection Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Canada Agricultural Products Act and the food provisions under the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.

Bill S-11 would raise the potential maximum fine for food safety infractions to $5 million, a 20-fold increase over previous maximum fines. This of questionable value, given that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not have a rigorous history of enforcing fining of companies due to limited resources. In 2011, no fines exceeded 20% of the maximum fine.

The bill would streamline inspectors' powers and procedures for all types of food. Previously, these were different according to whether the product was fish, meat or another agricultural product.

The bill would provide for the availability of official certification for exported foods and also would require food importers to comply with the licensing regime. It would allow the CFIA to suspend or revoke the licence of an importee instead of prosecuting for non-compliance. This could provide for more timely response in the advent of international recall.

The bill would allow for traceability requirements to be introduced through regulation at a later date. The New Democrats support enhanced traceability, particularly for meat, fish and fresh produce in the advent of a recall.

Finally, the bill includes a prohibition against tampering with products or selling products that might risk the health of Canadians or that have been subjected to a recall.

However, we in the NDP have some concerns with this bill.

It would provide a new due diligence defence that could significantly insulate companies from taking responsibility for any risk. This could diminish the Canadian public's confidence in our food supply and undermine the European Union's confidence in our exports. The United Kingdom recently rejected similar legislation for this reason.

It would do nothing to protect workers in meat processing plants with regard to whistle-blowing protection.

It also would include provisions that may inadvertently disallow certain products for Canadian export. The proposal to incorporate by reference standards could permit conflicts of interest to influence policy making and could abdicate government oversight entirely in some cases. There is no clause to address possible material conflicts of interest.

It would also do nothing to address problems with fraudulent nutrition information, despite the enormous health and financial toll of nutrition-related illness. The CFIA considers irregularities in nutrition labelling to be lower priority quality issues, not health and safety issues. According to the fines information published on CFIA's website for the period of January 2010 to September 2012, not a single fine was levied for inaccurate nutritional information on food labels, despite the fact that at least two of CFIA's own product sampling surveys demonstrated significant widespread inaccuracies in nutrition information provided in pre-packaged foods and restaurant websites and brochures.

By streamlining inspectors' powers for all types of food, there is concern that inspectors will have insufficient knowledge and/or experience to undertake this task. There are very different products with very different hazards associated with them.

The bill would create an internal review mechanism that regulated parties could use to seek review of certain inspection decisions or deal with complaints, rather than the current judicial review process. This should be monitored for transparency with resources given to public interest interveners.

Finally, the bill would give the minister power to grant, suspend and revoke non-transferable licences or registration for persons and establishments as well as any conditions that the minister might choose to prescribe. This represents more centralized power in the hands of the minister.

Let me talk about cuts to the CFIA budget in 2012. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency report on plans and priorities signed and tabled by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food himself on May 8, says, “Planned Spending is declining by approximately $46.6 million and 314 FTE's from 2012-13 to 2014-15--REF-CFIA Report on Plans and Priorities”. This comes from section 1.51 the financial resources and human resources CFIA report on plans and priorities.

The Conservatives like to say that they have invested $100 million additional funds to the CFIA. That claim is false. The $100 million is projected over five years and only $18 million have actually been allocated this year. In budget 2012 the next three-year outlook for food safety indicates a projected cut of $56.1 million.

Let me turn to auditing the CFIA compliance verification system, CVS. New Democrats believe that the CFIA processes such as the central verification system, need to be audited immediately. Bill S-11 was amended in the Senate so that a CFIA audit was required within five years of its coming into force, but this is not enough. Given repeated failures in the food safety system, we cannot wait five years. This is why we put forward an amendment at committee stage that would require an immediate audit in order to get baseline information to be applied in future reviews. Unfortunately, the Conservative members of the committee voted against it.

In January 2009, Sheila Weatherill was appointed by the Prime Minister to investigate what led to the listeriosis outbreak that left 22 people dead during the summer of 2008 and recommended how to avoid a similar tragedy. The compliance verification system was a new pilot inspection program adopted by the CFIA in 2005. Weatherill found that the CVS was flawed and was in need of “critical improvements related to its design, planning, and implementation”. She also found the CVS was “implemented without a detailed assessment of the resources available to take on these new tasks”.

In the aftermath of the 2008 disaster, it was discovered that Maple Leaf was under no obligation to report to the CFIA test results showing contamination in the plant. In a system which increasingly relies on companies to police themselves, this shortcoming was not addressed.

XL Foods, one of the biggest meat processors in the country, had also ignored this requirement to notify CFIA of test results. The CFIA does not have the resources in place to fully understand what was going on in that plant.

Important pieces of the Weatherill report were never fully adopted by the government, including a substantive internal audit that addressed CVS, the pilot reporting system being used for food inspectors during the Walkerton crisis that continues to be used today. A financial audit of the CFIA was completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, but it did not address the systems and the processes recommended by the Weatherill report.

There is much more I could say about the resources to the CFIA, on penalties that one would say are adequate but not enforced, and on further resources. However, let me summarize what we are looking for.

New Democrats have a serious number of concerns with the bill, however, we support the bill moving to third reading. We know the Conservatives need to accept responsibility for gutting food safety resources. They have been proponents of increased self-regulation. Inspectors look at paperwork, not at meat. This is a direct result of fewer resources provided to CFIA, and we are seeing those consequences now.

There should be no super events that catch us unaware. Given the increased complexity and centralization of the food system and greater volumes handled by any single facility, resources for food inspection should be increased to ensure the safety of Canadians.