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78th Annual Summer Conference, August 6–9, 2009

Food Safety and Regulation — How Safe Is Safe Enough?

Speakers: RORY McALPINE, Vice-President, Government & Industry Relations, Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., former British Columbia Deputy Minister of Agriculture, RONALD DOERING, Partner, Gowlings; former President, Canada Food Inspection Agency, and PAT MOONEY, Executive Director, ETC Group, biotechnology and biodiversity consultant (bios)

Summary by Daniella Davila, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient

Introduction (Sara Sarkar)

How do we define what is safe and what is an acceptable risk? What is science and what role can it play in lowering the risk? Whose responsibility is it and how do we balance safety with business interest? How are these issues placed into a global context? How are food regulation differences in different countries resolved in the context of the global market?

Ron Doering

Role of government and risk assessment.
25,000 Canadians get sick from food every day.

1. Description of Canadian food regulatory system

Two kinds of federal law: trade and commerce statutes (e.g., fish inspection act). No jurisdiction over food that does not leave the province but food that crosses provincial, national borders. Provincial facilities are not regulated at all (e.g., you can slaughter cow and take it to the market without meeting any provincial food standards because they don't exist). Every operator must have a license and detailed food safety plan and every animal is seen before it's slaughtered and it's a very detailed inspection. Very highly regulated sector. Meat over-inspected relative to the risk compared to poultry inspection, cereal operations. Detailed inspection in Canada – it's not desirable to have this system. The inspection is not worth the potential risk.

Food and drug act: does not use inspection but Section Four says that it is a crime to sell unsafe food. Mandatory recall – you can close food plant down. Food Inspection Agency: on average, 300 recalls a year. If there's the suspicion that a plant is producing unsafe food, then it can be closed down

2. Trade dimensions of food safety by looking at role of state in export and import

The law of international treaty: WTO signed the SBS agreement. Every country is entitled to set their standards in regards to food protection BUT the standards must be based on the risk.

Export and meat: meat moves around the world based on equivalency agreements. Role of state in export: it doesn't matter how good the company is, you can't sell meat abroad on your own because it's all about state-state negotiation. State together with the food companies are involved in the agreement.

Imports: imported food from countries that do not meet food safety standards. We import food from 100 different countries (mostly developing countries). You do not know what standards have been met. Some commodities have a system (example: fish are stopped if the company is on an alert list, but this is based on equivalencies).

Case study: cyclosporosis, a parasite that affects the small intestine. Texas government claimed it was in the strawberries. People did not buy Canadian strawberries and the strawberry industry lost a lot of money. But it wasn't strawberries. Americans are being protectionist. Guatemala lost a 10 million dollar industry that summer. In Canada, risk assessment is not justified as they hurt developing countries. Guatemalan plants are safe and there is no basis to deny them coming in. In 1998, 60 cases of cyclosporosis; risk assessment rarely overpasses corruption. After inspection was done, raspberries came from other unofficial sources.

Food safety has huge implications for developing countries as they do not meet the standards

3. Other kinds of international food safety issues

Role of the state: make laws, enforce them. When there's a threat to public health then the state has to take action to preserve safety. Food companies have to deal with regulation.

Rory McAlphine

Listeria crisis and Maple Leaf: it doesn't mater what the legalities say, industry has the first accountability.

Is food safety a private or public good? This is basis to be able to define roles and responsibilities. If it is a public good, then it is the role of the government but the companies pay for inspection services and the level of those services. Governments are organized to support economic welfare of the market and thus the food value chain. The government's conflict in economic issues and safety must be reconciled in an effective way.

What is the industry? Who is the industry? It's very complex as there are many actors outside of the regular definition of industry but who is the government when it comes to food safety? There are federal and provincial and municipal responsibilities when it comes to food safety. The government architecture results in duplications or gaps of effort. Industry and government can galvanize in a very effective way in the face of risk but how well do they cooperate in a preventative mode? They don't do it as well as they could, and as well as they do in a reactive mode.

Listeria crisis turned the company upside down. Why did it happen? There wasn't enough inspection resources but what allowed for those circumstances to come about? The truth is that because there was no law enforcement in regards to listeria, there was no frequency of inspection and no pressure to have thorough inspections.

The public does expect that governments have the responsibility but that does not reduce the responsibility of the industry in food safety.

How do you bring the different actors (government, industry, science) together to collaborate in a proactive mode to reduce risk?

Acting proactively depends on transparency, not just disincentives but incentives that promote better action (the listeria legislation is very punitive). The more you test, the more you find. We need a much better way of measuring performance. We do a poor job and a poor integrative system of surveying food safety and risks.

Pat Mooney

It's between civil society and government and industry together.

Is the food system safe? It's a matter of the chain of food itself. The food system is not effective, people are dying and they are not getting adequate protection. They are not being adequately served by the global food system. It's about the kind of food that we're offering? Is this system able to respond to new technologies? Is this food system from the farmer to the consumer capable of addressing new major threats in the environment, in terms of environment and water conservation, for example? Who is in the Third World? Who is getting food to them? Who is feeding them and how do we help the people who are trying to make them food secure and who are trying to feed them? These people are not the industrial food chain. How do we strengthen these people?

1. New technology, for example, nanotechnology. The reason why we're using this technology is because food works differently at the nano scale. The characteristics of the chemical compounds change dramatically. They respond differently. Government regulation of nanotechnology is behind. Can food system respond to technologies of biomass?

How does food chain respond to climate change? We don't know where food can be grown in the future? We can't be sure and we're moving to an extremely insecure time in food supply. Are industries flexible enough to be able to respond to climate change? No, they're not as they do not have diversity in crops. You don't know what the safe growing conditions are going to be. That's why the biomass is controlled. Land is bought to ensure there will be food at home. Production of biomass and patents on products is not safe. Who's controlling business monopolies? We don't have the capacity to respond to the changes in the environment and the food chain that will exist in the future.

Innovating in the area of 4 or 5 crops. 105 major crops. Half of the innovation is not in food crops while the farmers are innovating in the field in order to be flexible and be able to respond to food chain and environment changes in the future. The model we have created cannot stand and respond effectively to change.


How well should we rely on the expiry dates on the packages?

Once you have opened the pack, only a couple of days. Fundamental accountability of consumers. Mishandling of the food. Need education as people don't have the knowledge about food safety in the home, regardless of what the industry does regulating food safety

Can Canada rely on the food system to produce the necessary food?

Overuse of the food. Part of the system that encourages this to be done. The hungry in the planet: 3.3 billion people living in farms. Growing food hunger. Peasant farmers are planting more different crops and that diversity is a response to the environmental changes they see. If we are going to be able to adjust to environmental conditions, we need to rely on genetic diversity and on the crops and the farmers that are ensuring this diversity. Too much on high-tech instead of wide-tech and the collaboration with farmers in ensuring diversity.

Is there a definition for food? We are missing this definition as it is such a construct

“Functional food”: things you eat.

How do we regulate food with a more ecological system in mind? How do we implicate citizens and civil society?

Regulations are only as good as our democracy. If you take food seriously then you will make sure food is regulated. In the absence of an informed society, then you will not have food being regulated. “Sound science” faced with politics disappears and we don't have a food policy. There is not an organized way of thinking, talking about, engaging with the issues without having an integrated view of them. Deficit is in the absence of a policy – there is no policy framework in which you can have dialogue. No integration and dilemma about science because people assume that you can separate science and policy, when this is not the case. Risk management depends on several factors, not just science. Politicians ruin the science. Guatemala case study: the science said that the plants were fine and reliable, but there was no consideration of the possibility of corruption. Science always tied to and influenced by politics.

What changes are occurring to address the long impact of food safety? The soft sciences are a lot harder than the hard sciences.

Competing policies but do we have the mechanisms to have them live together? How do you do that in a disengaged uneducated society. Difficulty of competing interests.

Is there a role for the high-tech in the wide-tech system? Can they both strengthen the system?

They are not a dichotomy. With high-tech you find a micro possibility that you apply at the macro level, and this is what's problematic. In the past the focus has been on the high-tech. There is gap between the farmers and the scientists that needs to be broken.

Increasing vulnerabilities in the population and what is the implications of this in the policy and regulatory framework?

When does it become the individual's responsibility to pay attention to what they are eating. We need more consumer education and awareness. Being an advocate and educator. Government did not inform the public very productively. Social media, institutions about food safety, labeling do this. We don't have well-informed media. We don't have the capacity to absorb this information and explain it to the media. It's a science-illiterate society and there is a lot of misinformation. Citizens are not stupid but misinformed; and are making judgements all the time based on that misinformation.

What is, if any, the role of municipalities in the regulatory framework, especially in the food safety at the municipal level (farms)?

Municipalities can do something but there's a problem in terms of training and capacity.

Is the rate of food poisoning going down or up? Is that producer-driven or consumer-driven? Is the issue of food safety dependent on consumers or producers?

We don't know, it's a collaboration of both and other actors. We have a fragmented system of collecting data. If we don't integrate the data correctly, then we will be unable to identify where in the system food safety went wrong. Risk-mapping: where do risks occur more greatly but with the disintegrated system? We don't have that risk-mapping system well established.

What do you think of organic food and what does organic labeling mean?

Ron – it's an extremely emotive and philosophical question. There is a great deal of misinformation and mislabeling on the products. The original motion of what organic was has been lost and only “big organic” can satisfy the demands of Wal-Mart, so it has won. Rory – there was no standard of what “organic” was but there is one now and there is a commercial purpose to labeling food as “organic.” Pat – most farmers in the world are traditional and not just because they can't afford to bring about technological advances but very much because they are not interested in doing so.