Thursday, April 20, 2017

Safe Food For Canadians Regulation Response

Following is the letter I wrote on behalf of the New Brunswick Organic Committee to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regarding the proposed Safe Food For Canadians Regulation.
The letter is a bit rushed but I think solid response to a 120 page document.

Micheal  Carr, Jemseg River Farm
Co-Chair, New Brunswick Organic Committee
262 Rte 715, Jemseg NB

April 20, 2017

Richard Arsenault, Executive Director
Domestic Food Safety Systems and Meat Hygiene Directorate
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
1400 Merivale Road, Tower 1
Ottawa, ON K1A 0Y9

Dear Mr Arsenault

We are all proponents of food safety and sound regulatory and policy frameworks.  As certified organic farmers and processors, our goal is to grow and produce the healthiest, most nutritious, and safest foods available for our customers. We are leading the way in producing safe food in an environmentally sustainable manner.  These are the values that drive what we do. Our customers come to us because they identify our food as safe. Many are recovering from illnesses or have compromised immune systems and we know that they would be more susceptible to food borne illnesses.  Not only do we value food safety, we also know that one food safety incident has a high probability of destroying our small businesses and is highly damaging for our industry. We and our families are also typically the first consumers of our own product. We have a strong interest in food safety.  
Upon review of the proposed SFCR we observe that the numbers quoted in the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement present very little evidence to justify regulatory change in the domestic organic and conventional vegetable and fruit industries. The figures indicate the societal cost of all foodborne illness in Canada regardless of the source. These numbers are highly misleading and do not attempt to differentiate the problematic areas of risk to be addressed by policy change. The risks are not broken down according to their source and it is unfair to Canadian producers who actually represent very little risk and have an excellent track record. The inherent risks associated with domestic fruit and vegetable production are very low and do not warrant the excessive regulatory burden that is proposed.                
For example, the SCFR document reports:
“From 2011 to present, there have been 84 recalls related to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as 1 573 recalls related to food from the NFRS. Together, these represent more than 70% of all recalls over this period.”
We found in the food recall listings on the CFIA website from 2013 to present only one recall of Canadian fresh produce that originated on a fruit and vegetable farm.  This recall concerned needles found in potatoes. This incident was not a foodborne illness incident, but an act vandalism that could happen anywhere in the food chain and did not result in any illness or physical harm.
Also from the proposed SFCR:
“A 2013 study in the Journal of Food Protection demonstrated that from 2001 to 2009, 27 fresh fruit and vegetable–related outbreaks occurred in Canada and resulted in over 1 500 cases of illness.”
After examining the article it appears these were almost exclusively related to imported foods or food processing and preparation facilities. Only two of the described events originated on Canadian farms and although serious in nature were rather limited in scope. This same study notes that as of 2013, Canada imported approximately 86% of the fruit and 41% of the vegetables consumed by the population. Imported food because of volume and greater chance of contamination clearly bears a higher risk of foodborne illness.    
Therefore, a closer examination of the data clearly indicate that the risks associated with food in Canada appear to be in two areas: (1) The increased volume of imported food that often comes from countries with very little in the way food safety practices and, (2) the food processing and preparation in large commercial operations which have been subject to many recalls. It seems clear that these areas are the target areas to regulate in order to protect Canadians.
The cost of the administrative burden about to be placed on small producers could be devastating as we survive on very small margins and work in a context of a global system that produces very cheap food. It is clearly foreign food that carries the highest risk as it is produced in unknown conditions by producers that will face little or no retaliation for biological or chemical contamination.  According to the SFCR proposal,   
“The volume of fresh fruits and vegetables and NFRS foods being imported into Canada has approximately doubled, from $11.7 billion in 2006 to $22.8 billion in 2015. With respect to fresh fruits and vegetables, a 43% increase in imports of these products from South America has been observed over the past four years.”
Canadian producers of fruits and vegetable have been under siege by cheaper foreign food imports and have lost market share. The imposition of the regulations and their associated costs may well be the nail in the coffin for the remaining producers in Canada who are subject to this proposed regulatory framework. With the implementation per licensed  business  at an estimated $6370 average annualised  cost, this will dramatically impact any business with gross sales below $500,000.00. Our industry has very low profit margins and most farms are already experiencing  low profitability and financial instability.  Many farmers already have to work off farm to sustain their operations because they cannot generate enough revenues. These extra costs can only come from increased food prices to Canadian consumers and will place Canadian growers in an even more disadvantaged position and lead to business closures.  
Although the cost of food imports looks low to the importer and the consumer, the costs to Canada related to increased risk of foodborne illness are clear. The data clearly indicates the need for a higher level of scrutiny for imported food.  The CFIA is responsible for due diligence in the area of food safety, but we feel that it is missing the target by dramatically and unnecessarily increasing regulation in domestic  agricultural production while imported food  that represents the highest  risk flows into the country without sufficient scrutiny. 
Although licensing for export may be a necessity for export trade requirements depending on agreements with other countries, the proposed interprovincial trade licensing requirement unfairly discriminates against farmers near provincial borders, particularly in the Maritime provinces where the markets in each province and the geographical areas are relatively small. There is no demonstrated additional risk involved with food crossing interprovincial borders which are an arbitrary line on the map. Canada is a nation that has never regulated interprovincial trade except for tobacco and alcohol. This proposed interprovincial restriction of trade may be unconstitutional given Section 121 of the Constitution which states,
"All articles of the growth, produce or manufacture of any of the provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other provinces."
We suggest that inspection and regulation of domestic food supply up to the point of processing be transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture which is in a better position to comprehend the damaging repercussions of regulations for farmers, while CFIA regulates imported foods and foods to be exported. The CFIA SFCR admits it has little knowledge of these operations and is therefore not in the best position to regulate farm operations and support food safety advancement. We therefore request that (1) the interprovincial regulation is not applied and (2) oversight of domestic on farm food safety be transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture which has a mandate to support agricultural food safety.
The burdensome effect of the proposed regulations will also be in direct contradiction to the mandate letter issued by the Prime Minister to the Minister of Agriculture regarding the promotion of Canadian production which states:
“Government must use its policy and financial tools to support the agricultural sector in its vital work. This includes helping the sector, including getting product to market, water management, research and innovation, food safety and export support.”
There is not sufficient evidence that the proposed regulatory framework proposed will significantly increase food safety in our industry. It is clear that the proposal will harm agricultural producers, reducing the industry’s ability to be viable in the long term, irrevocably damaging national food security. Without a viable Canadian industry we will be even more dependent on food imports and therefore even more susceptible to the inherent increased food risks within that supply line.  Increased food safety could be better achieved by educational programs and incentives for food safety prevention plans and infrastructure development rather than regulation. The success of voluntary environmental farm plan development is an example of this kind of policy.
The SFCR describes only two options going forward: the status quo and the proposed regulatory approach. We disagree that there are only two options.  There are many other incentive based policies to be considered that may be more cost effective and productive. A much better approach would be to provide education opportunities and manuals for small businesses that help them develop their own food safety protocols and prevention plans. Canadian farmers want to provide healthy and safe food for their fellow Canadians and need incentives and supports to aid them in producing food safety protocols and infrastructure.  If there are food safety issues on Canadian farms, it is primarily because we lack the resources to address them. Government programs should be supportive of small business enterprises which are the real engines of economic health and the heart of local economies across the nation. The proposed regulations would put Canadian producers at a disadvantage related to foreign producers.   
“With the proposed Regulations, the CFIA would move to a single-food regulatory approach. In general, this would mean that there would be a levelling of the competitive playing field for all regulated parties across commodities. Imports would be held to the same standards and requirements as domestic food.”
With no control over activities in foreign countries and little understanding of the direct unsubsidized costs to producers, it is doubtful that there will be a level playing field. Indeed, the SCFR impact statement promises a decreased administrative burden for importers and increased burden for domestic primary producers because the latter has “complicated operations”.  If the CFIA is truly going to hold all imports to the same standards as domestic producers there might be a lot of empty shelves in the supermarkets given the current levels of imports. We currently have a food safety agreement with the US only, so that would preclude imports of fruits and vegetables from other countries. How will the CFIA ensure that imported foods are not contaminated with biological or chemical contaminants such as unregistered pesticides?  What new protocols will be used with imported food to insure food safety from countries without equivalent food safety programs?  The high number of food recalls and illness outbreaks related to imported food has already demonstrated the challenges in this area.    
Business Size
If food risk is not related to business size as claimed by the SFCR impact statement, then why have the $30,000 licencing trigger which is also an arbitrary choice based on HST requirements which are a relatively low administrative burden for small businesses. Even for small food related businesses, the arbitrary $30,000 licensing trigger is unrealistic as the administrative burden would be so overwhelming that it would destroy these businesses and prevent new businesses from ever getting started.  A one-size-fits-all approach will be untenable and will destroy livelihoods across the food industry. The arbitrary $30,000 trigger has no relationship to associated risk and is merely one of convenience for the CFIA based on HST requirements. When does the risk actually increase?  Clearly there is a risk related to the amount of product and potential impact on number of consumers.  We should have hard evidence on which to base such a decision.  The equivalent regulations in the US have a lower regulatory burden allowing farm selling to qualified equivalent food safety program has less stringent requirements for small businesses with less than US$500,000 average annual sales that sell over half of their production direct to consumers, restaurants, retail establishments not more than 275 miles (445 kilometres) away. Instead of requiring a formal PCP, these businesses are able to design, monitor and document their own food safety programs and must be able to provide a report to the Food and Drug Administration if asked to do so. No interstate restrictions are applied. Since these businesses are primarily direct marketing or supplying a local retailer, traceability in the event of a food safety incident would not be a difficult. This approach would seem to provide an adequate way to reduce risk without imposing unnecessary costs. . We therefore recommend that any licensing requirement based on sales be removed until research provides actual data that indicates increasing risk justifies regulation.
Organic Products
The proposed changes to the organic regulations proposed in the SFCR are unrelated to food safety.
The proposal for a 12 month validity (section 342(3)) restriction is impractical as variation in annual inspection times and small backlogs in certification administration beyond the growers control could leave growers without valid certification for months at a time. The current regulations allow for extended certification with revocation privileges for certifying bodies in the case of non-compliance.  A minimum validity time frame would be 20 months to allow for annual variations in inspection dates and certification processing. There is no clear indication that a change from the current regulations would increase food safety or organic integrity and no reason is given for the regulatory change.
Regarding (342(1)c), it will be highly unlikely that the entire supply chain such as conveyance firms and abattoirs will certify due to the associated certification costs and administrative burden relative to the small market size. This discrimination will cause significant harm to Canada’s fastest growing agricultural sector, denying access to services required for normal business operations.  The organic sector has stringent voluntary traceability and accountability requirements that reduce risk of contamination and co- mingling.
The SFCR impact statement claims as a positive benefit,
“Increased opportunity for organic certification and ability to market products with the Canadian Organic Logo”
We fail to see how this benefit will be realised with the proposed changes and are quite sure  that the opposite effect will be felt.  Since these regulatory changes to organic products  do not involve food safety we request that they be removed from the SFCR and be deferred until the next organic standards review is finished or further consultation with our industry takes place which would require an extension of the 90 day comment period.  
We see the proposed SFCR as problematic on many fronts and are deeply concerned that it would negatively impact our liveliehoods and food safety for Canadians who may eventually be denied a safe and efficient domestic food supply. We therefore request a deferral of the regulations involving domestic produce until extensive consultation with the industry that could lead to more effective policy.  We are more than ready to participate in such a consultation and policy development, but would need at minimum a full year given that we are just entering our busiest season.  
Micheal Carr, M.Phil. Policy Studies

Co-Chair NB Organic Committee, on behalf of NB Organic Producers.

1 comment:

  1. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.