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Harmonizing U.S. and Canadian Food Safety Goals

Introduction

Agriculture and food manufacturing and production is big business between Canada and the United States of America.   In 2010, food and agricultural products accounted for over $33 Billion in bilateral trade.  Canada imports approximately 13% of all U.S food and agricultural exports.  The U.S imports about 20% of all Canadian products (Regulatory Cooperation Council).  This trade includes both inputs to agricultural and food processes, as well as consumable goods. 

In Canada, agricultural and food products are regulated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Other regulatory partners, including Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are responsible for managing and mitigating food safety risks in the human population.  In the food safety arena, there is broad co-operation between CFIA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

The tragedies of September 11, 2001, led to increased border surveillance and has had negative impacts on the flow of goods between Canada and the United States.  Recognizing the harmful effects on trade and economic prosperity, the Obama administration and the Canadian Federal Government have recently entered into a new agreement around border security and higher levels of co-operation and joint harmonization of food safety standards and processes. 

This post will outline some of the recent challenges and some background on the new agreement as well as suggest some possible impacts for food safety management.

Challenges

Food safety is a concern at every level of government: Federal, Regional and Local.  The response to a food safety concern can have wide ranging and immediate impacts on the population, Injured appleagricultural sector, producers, food processors and the ability to access markets.  The regulatory regime is also complex with both Federal and Provincial requirements in the Canadian market and at the Federal and State level in the United States.  There are numerous product certification and compliance standards.  Monitoring and managing food safety is a complex management task.  There are rigorous requirements to maintain documentation on traceability of inputs from the supplier chain, and tracing processed products through the distribution chain. Documentation on lab testing and quality assurance standards is also required.

Increasingly, government is relying on the food processors themselves to self-monitor, with inspectors auditing the paper trail.  The reporting burden can be onerous, particularly on smaller producers. The result has been that smaller producers have focused on local market markets and have shunned export opportunities. 

New Border Agreement

In December 2011, a new Border Perimeter Agreement was signed between Canada and the United States (www.BorderActionPlan.gc.ca). As part of this agreement, a Joint Action Plan Initiative has been developed with the following activities that impact food safety:

  1. Develop common approaches to food safety;
  2. Equivalence agreements for meat safety systems;
  3. Mutual reliance on jointly acceptable food safety laboratory recognition criteria, test results and methodologies;
  4. Streamline certification requirements for meat and poultry; and,
  5. Implement common meat cut nomenclature.

The impact on both agricultural producers and food processors will be substantial.  When the negotiations are completed, both countries will recognize compliance verification procedures done at source.  This is designed to simplify movement of goods and products. 

A series of Canadian working groups will be established to negotiate and implement the joint action plan.  These groups will work with their U.S. counterparts to co-ordinate food safety approaches and methodologies.  The plan is to complete the harmonization within 18 months. The aim is to create alignment and harmonization of regulations, standards and approaches to food safety risk management procedures.

Improving the Inspection Regime

While all of this is being completed, CFIA has undertaken a two-year project to modernizeFood Safety Inspection processes, anticipated to be completed in 2012-2013.  This special initiative is looking at all aspects of food safety Red sealinspection and compliance activities undertaken by the CFIA to make inspection more effective and efficient, while maintaining food safety outcomes.  Various commodity sectors take different approaches to food safety inspection processes.  Depending upon the nature of the risk and the complexity of the processing environment, inspection procedures can range from review and audit of traceability documentation at the processor level; to risk based strategies for inspection of products at the border or at the processors sites; or full time Federal inspectors on-site in the processing facilities.  As part of this modernization effort, options for third party inspections, certified by CFIA are also being examined.

Implications

These initiatives will have, potentially, profound impacts on agricultural producers and food processors.  Food safety risk management is increasingly being downloaded to the plant and producer level.  The implication of both the new border agreement and inspection procedures is to lower trade barriers between the U.S. and Canada, and to reduce duplication of inspections, lab sampling and compliance activities. We anticipate that this will be based largely on a risk management approach, as opposed to a brute force inspection regime.

For agricultural producers and processors, this means a renewed focus on accountability and traceability of inputs and subsequent distribution of products.  The ability to maintain accurate records, often computerized for data sharing, will require investment in more sophisticated IT solutions.  The ability to understand and comply with the Performance Measurement regime of government departments will become a crucial component of understanding the food safety requirements.  In the end, this is designed to make life easier for everyone.

Understanding the new regime can position producers to take advantage of the new market opportunities and prepare themselves to expand their market horizons.

The end result is enhanced access to markets for both Canadian and American producers.

Take-aways

  1. How long does it take your organization to run a traceability report? 
  2. Is your traceability system automated or paper based?
  3. If you were asked to exchange electronic data with relevant inspection authorities, could you comply?
  4. What opportunities exist for your company or organization to take advantage of the harmonization of food safety approaches? 
  5. What are your next steps?