The agency responsible for food safety in Canada says it started to improve surveillance of imported food even before an internal audit found two years ago that it was not doing a good job of monitoring what was coming into this country.
Cameron Prince, vice-president of operations at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said Friday that his organization has taken a number of steps to enhance its imported food program.
Dedicated teams of food inspectors have been established to look for contraband items in the marketplace, Mr. Prince said. Others have been regularly redirected from their usual jobs at Canadian processing plants to conduct “border blitzes,” he said. Those occur when the agency receives a tip that a certain commodity coming in from another country might be contaminated and mean every truck or ship carrying that type of food will be stopped and inspected.
There’s a better tracking system in place so the agency knows what food has arrived in Canada and where it has gone. And 538 new front-line inspectors have been hired since 2005 – though Mr. Prince could not say how many of them have been dedicated to watching the imports.
The internal audit released Thursday, which covered the years 2005 to 2008, found that the agency had left much of the responsibility for the safety of imported food in the hands of inspectors in other countries. The auditor identified “multiple deficiencies” with the agency’s surveillance of imported food that represented “multiple areas of risk exposure.”
Canada has not adopted the same aggressive approach to ensure the safety of imported foods that has been implemented by the United States. The Americans have sent 22 of its own inspectors to live in China where they monitor what is being processed, packaged and shipped to the U.S. for consumption. “They are basically managing risk proactively at the source,” said Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean at the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph.
Mr. Prince said there were no plans for Canadian inspectors to be sent abroad on a permanent basis. Instead, he said, delegations from his agency are sent to various countries regularly.
But Dr. Charlebois, who believes Canada has one of the best systems of food inspection in the world, said that with Canada’s increasing reliance on imported food, “it would be high time for the CFIA to assess risks remotely instead of just domestically.”
Opposition critics said the Conservative government needs to do more to enhance food safety and the audit should cause concern for Canadian consumers.
Malcolm Allen, deputy food safety critic for the New Democrats, said it is clear that the foreign food-inspection system is a “shambles” and Canadians do not know the extent to which their health could be affected. “Lots of folks go to their doctors with gastro-intestinal complaints or simply have those complaints at home,” Mr. Allen said. But, because the food-inspection system is not integrated with the public-health system, he said, there is no way to track what might be related to imported food products.
Wayne Easter, the Liberal critic, called the report worrisome. “Canadian producers are asked to meet very, very stringent standards,” he said, “yet imported product comes into this country under production standards which don’t meet the same requirements Canadian producers have to meet and obviously under food-safety standards that we don’t even know.”