Current Issue: April 5, 2013 Next Issue: September 2013
Consumers should be extra careful with fruits and vegetables from outside Canada, a food safety expert warns, as only two per cent of all imported foods are inspected by Canadian officials.
When that two per cent is inspected, it is examined for potential threats to plant and animal health, not to ensure it is safe for human consumption.
It is the duty of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to inspect and maintain standards for all food being imported to Canada.
Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union representing federal food inspectors, says these standards are not being met.
"Canadians need to wash and cook their food carefully, because the idea that this is all somehow being looked at by the CFIA? Not with their budget," says Kingston.
The recent federal budget announced ever further cuts to the agency with $56. 1 million by 2015.
A barebones industry
In a 2011-12 report on plans and priorities, the federal inspection agency says it will reduce spending, potentially cutting staff to 200 inspectors from 400.
This would put numbers at the 2008 level, when 23 Canadians died from listeriosis and hundreds of others became seriously ill with the disease.
For Kingston, the lack of regulation comes from insufficient funding, as well as little initiative.
"It’s in part about lack of resources," says Kingston. "It’s also a lot easier to just sort of plod away and wait for disease reports to come in, than it is to stop and check everything before it comes into the country."
He also cites problems with the federal agency.
"It’s like the senior people in the CFIA have totally lost touch with what’s going on in the field,” says Kingston. “They stand in front of parliamentary committees and say that there’s only one set of rules and everything is treated the same and that is total nonsense."
Canada imported food worth $28.1 billion in 2010, says a Statistics Canada report.
Such large quantities mean food inspectors are spread thin, and have much more to inspect than they can cover.
We’re taking it at blind faith. In a lot of cases we’ve seen numerous incidences of tainted food coming from abroad into home markets.
"The CFIA uses a risk-based approach to determine the frequency at which to inspect imported products. The frequency varies based on food safety risk, the history of compliance of a particular product, the history of compliance of the processor, and the country of origin of the product," the Food Inspection Agency said in an email.
The organization did not comment on the lack of inspection, but did say the CFIA works with the Canadian Border Services Agency to ensure safety of food imports, and that all imports must comply with requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.
The other 98 per cent
A funding cut is unacceptable for New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen for Welland, Ontario who is also the party’s agriculture critic.
The lack of funding means the organization will be relying on the food safety standards in the country of origin for the 98 per cent of imports not inspected upon arrival in Canada.
"We’re taking it at blind faith,” says Allen. “In a lot of cases we’ve seen numerous incidences of tainted food coming from abroad into home markets."
Canada’s top food-trading partners for 2011 include the United States, the European Union, China, Brazil, Thailand, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Colombia.
There is no uniform regulation for international food safety inspections. Each country sets its own standard.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects problem food imports for diseases such as e.coli, listeriosis or salmonella usually after an outbreak has occurred.
University of Manitoba professor Richard Holley, from the faculty of agriculture and food science, says there needs to be more preventive programs in place.
"There has to be a more proactive approach in terms of application of regulatory resources to address issues assorted with risks in the food system," says Holley. "The government needs to be more pro-active."
Holley recommends the federal government start compiling a database specifically looking at outbreaks and sicknesses caused by imported foods, to understand better how to inspect and regulate imported foods.
Canada's top 10 food imports
Canada's top food imports for 2011:
Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Food imports by the numbers
Importing food south of the border
The United States is Canada's largest import partner. We import almost 60 per cent of our food from the U.S., according to Statistics Canada data. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is much stricter than the CFIA:
Source: The US Food and Drug Administration