The Journey towards Safe Food for Canadians

The Journey towards Safe Food for Canadians

Posted: Monday May 1st, 2017

Article by: Carol T Culhane, PHEc, MBA, President, International Food Focus Ltd.

With alarming food safety recalls across the nation, in January 21st 2017, the long-awaited proposed regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA), which received Royal Assent on November 22nd, 2012, was published in Canada Gazette I. The proposed Safe Food for Canadians Regulations reflects a significant change in the way that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approaches the regulatory oversight of food safety in Canada.

Pan-Canadian outbreaks of listeriosis and E. coli and Salmonella contaminated food remain in common memory. In 2008, a listeriosis outbreak spanned across five provinces, cost the Canadian economy $242 million, sickened 57 Canadians, and claimed the lives of 23 individuals. Several years later, a nationwide 2012 E.coli contamination of ground beef involved the disposal of 5.5 million kg of product, and revealed that “the CFIA did not possess the power to compel regulated parties to provide adequate documentation in the event of a significant food safety incident.” Moreover in 2014, imported Salmonella-contaminated chia seeds which was incorporated into 24 products sold in Canada and prepared by nine separate Canadian manufacturers. Due to the imported nature of the chia seeds, there was a significant degree of complexity in the recall procedure that needed to be addressed.

Consequent to acceptance of their portion of the responsibility, the CFIA embarked detailed scrutiny, critical analysis, and a comprehensive makeover of their entire operation. The current scope of CFIA inspections are limited to federally-regulated commodities, such as meat and dairy products, while commodities such as spices, snack foods, bakery products, fats and oils, as well infant formula, are not subject to the same scrutinous regulatory requirements. There is also limited oversight on products distributed interprovincially, thus posing possible food safety concerns for Canadians. Moreover, such limiting domestic factors render the containment of food contamination between countries to be increasingly difficult, especially with the ever-growing global scale of food trade.

As a result, the proposed 17 part SFCR is an amalgamation of the Canada Agricultural Products Act, Meat Inspection Act, Fish Inspection Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, along with food-commodity based Regulations, which will be repealed with the ratification of the SFCR. Therefore, there will be two Acts with enabling regulations pertinent to food sold in Canada – the Food and Drugs Act and the Safe Food for Canadians Act. In addition, the SFCR also uses the legislative instrument, “Incorporated by Reference” (IbR), to include specificities such as Grades and Standards of Identity of food and food commodities. In the view of the CFIA, the SFCA has been designed to “encourage innovation [….], and contains explicit authority to incorporate any document into its regulations, regardless of its source”. An IbR is efficient and practical for all stakeholders by allowing prompt regulatory responses to scientific and innovative improvements without the need for formal and often lengthy regulatory amendments. The Food and Drugs Regulation, administered by Health Canada, carries a provision for IbR since 2012.

With a focus on licensing, trade, Preventive Control Plan (PCP), and traceability, the SFCR introduces new and updated fundamental changes to food safety and requires regulatory compliance by all stakeholders. Food manufacturing, preparing, processing, storing, labelling, importing, exporting, and interprovincial trade among others, would require licensure and a fixed place of business in Canada. With a proposed fee of $250, the license would be valid for a two-year period and would be based on the activity of the establishment. Meat licensure may be subject to additional requirements.

In addition, license applicants would be required to create a PCP to identify the biological, chemical and physical hazards to which the food being prepared is subject to, and, evidence-based, verified procedures specifically designed to control or eliminate these risks. For example, fruit and vegetable producers and processors need to be cognizant of possible contamination by E.coli and Salmonella, and accordingly require documented evidence-based procedures which are proven to be effective in operation and in control of contaminants. Similarly, fish importers and exporters need be aware of histamine levels in fresh fish and have documented procedures to reduce chemicals levels exceeding acceptance. The Regulations further outline the scope of the PCP to include lot numbers on all food products, recall plans, sanitation controls, pest controls, and non-food agents,  conveyances and equipment, conditions respecting establishments, unloading, loading and storing, staff competency, personnel hygiene, communicable diseases and procedures for investigation, and notifications and complaints. The proposed SFCR does however include exemptions for some parties such as businesses with $30,000 or less in annual gross revenue, however such operators will still require preventive control procedures in place.

In addition, the SFCR will also adopt the Codex Alimentarius template of “one step forward, one step back” for every link in the supply chain for enhanced traceability. In the event of a food safety recall, electronic or paper records must be accessible in Canada within 24 hours, which should identify the partner in an immediate forward transaction (e.g. a retailer or another food business), and the immediate backward supplier.  Retailers would not be required to trace forward their sales to consumers.

With such critical initiatives in licensing, PCP, and traceability among others, the SFCR addresses  current concerns and hazards in the food and food-commodity industry. The proposed SFCR in Canada Gazette I, is available HERE and additional information can be found HERE