US Shutdown Leaves Canada’s Food Safety Vulnerable

 In Compliance Updates

The quality of American food imports to Canada could be affected by the prolonged partial government shutdown in the US. This is according to one food policy expert, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Charlebois expressed concern about disrupted regulatory oversight in the industry due to the shutdown’s impact on the US FDA. The Federal Food and Drug Administration oversees 80% of all food facilities in the country. The FDA ceased all inspections when the shutdown began on Dec. 22. On Tuesday, however, the federal agency announced they would resume some of their inspections at high-risk manufacturing and processing plants.

Charlebois said Canada imports more than $16 billion worth of food yearly from the US.  Of our total food imports, 94% of the beef, 83% of the pork/ham, and 62% of the fresh vegetables come from the US. These numbers come from a brief he prepared for the NAFTA renegotiations last summer.

“We’re very dependent on the US to actually feed ourselves, particularly when it comes to produce in the winter,” Charlebois told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Thursday.

That’s why the food policy expert said he’s watching how the partial US government shutdown is affecting the industry there.

“We’re somewhat vulnerable to the food safety practices in the United States, so anything that would go wrong in the United States would eventually affect us,” he explained. Although the reduced number of inspections seems alarming, Charlebois said this actually isn’t the problem. Most US food producers employ their own inspectors and conduct regular third-party audits. He said the FDA doesn’t conduct daily inspections, with most facilities only required to be inspected every other year.

 

Lapse in Regulatory Oversight

The real concern, according to Charlebois, is the lapse in regulatory oversight. This includes following up on investigations, tracking trends, and identifying possible threats to food safety.

“If the FDA is actually out and not doing anything, who’s making the industry accountable?” he asked. “That’s the problem.”

Charlebois pointed to the romaine lettuce recall as a perfect example of the importance of oversight in the industry. It took months, but the agency was able to trace the source to a farm in California. When they did, they were quick to take regulatory action.

If another outbreak occurred somewhere in the US, Charlebois said it would be difficult to investigate it with the FDA not operating at full capacity.

“A lot has happened since Dec. 22,” he said. “That work stoppage may have created some gaps in the system.”

 

What it means for Canada

Charlebois said he doesn’t think Canadians should be worried.  He does, however, think the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and importers need to pay attention to US developments.

Because the US and Canada are such close trading partners, the CFIA and FDA regularly share import and export data. Charlebois said the CFIA will likely have more difficulty getting information from the FDA so long as the shutdown persists.

“If nobody actually is on the other side of the phone answering questions, it’s hard to really have confidence in a system you don’t control,” he said.

The food policy professor said he suspects the CFIA is taking extra precautions and approaching the situation with “extreme prudence.”

A spokesperson for the CFIA said the agency “remains vigilant” when it comes to food safety concerns.

“All food and agricultural products sold in Canada, whether domestic or imported, must comply with Canadian laws and regulations,” the agency said in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca. “Meat inspection delivered by the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service and the US Department of Agriculture laboratory operations in support of this program are continuing.”

 

CFIA Has No Current Food Concerns

The CFIA added that it hasn’t received an indication of any food concerns at this time.

“Our ongoing import surveillance, inspections, and controls continue to apply and if we become aware of problems with imported products from the U.S., appropriate action will be taken,” the spokesperson said.

Charlebois said he’s comforted by how the Canadian food industry is mitigating risk from the US. Case in point, during the romaine lettuce scare. Grocers led the way by pulling lettuce from their shelves before a recall was issued.

Charlebois said he suspects the industry would apply a similar strategy in the event of another safety concern.

Finally, Charlebois said the CFIA will have better tools to source a potential outbreak from the U.S. thanks to the new regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which came into effect on Jan. 15.

Under the new system, Canadian food producers – including importers – require a license with the agency.

“If you do import products from the US, the CFIA will know who you are, where you are, and what you’re importing,” Charlebois said.

 

Written with files from CTV News

 

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