USDA report card on CFIA — OK, but should try harder

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A review last fall of Canada’s meat production and inspection system by U.S. food safety experts resulted in an adequate rating for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but lots of suggestions for improvement.

The U.S. is the biggest customer for Canadian meat, and the two countries have a reciprocal inspection agreement under which they accept products from each other with little reinspection. They regularly conduct audits of the other’s meat plants and inspection activities. Canada will release its observations on the American system in the coming months.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Agriculture Department concluded that CFIA performance is “adequate” in maintaining equivalence and meeting its required inspection criteria. It said CFIA should do a better job of ensuring the domestic food industry follows HACCP, an internationally accepted food safety protocol. Sanitation and humane handling of livestock in slaughter and processing plants “also need attention.”

USDA was asked to explain the implications of the adequate rating on Canadian exports to the U.S. but hasn’t yet responded. Under the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act, FSIS has changed the designations it applies to foreign processors.

“All of the facilities audited continue to be eligible to export their products to the U.S. and there are no changes to exports and trade,” CFIA said.

The Canadian Meat Council, which represents packers and processors, said the report “confirms that the Canadian meat inspection system is effective and equivalent to the U.S. inspection system… 99.95 per cent of meat and poultry products exported to the U.S. met American import requirements.”

XL recall

The audit occurred during the aftermath of the inquiry into last year’s recall of beef from XL Foods in Brooks, Alta., which was the largest ever in Canada. That event provided FSIS with examples of where CFIA needed improvement.

Meat Council president Jim Laws noted that in addition to the FSIS rating, Canada has been approved for increased beef and pork shipments to Korea along with Mexico, Russia, Honduras and Costa Rica, “which all audited and approved the Canadian system in 2013.”

CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle said the FSIS audit “confirms that Canada’s meat inspection system is effective… all of the issues identified in the audit have been corrected to its satisfaction. Opportunities for improvement that were identified have all been addressed to the satisfaction of U.S. authorities.”

Last fall, auditor general Michael Ferguson warned of weaknesses in CFIA’s management of the recall of contaminated food products and in its followup actions with processors to prevent further incidents.

There are significant gaps and shortcomings in the food safety system, he added. “The weaknesses we found in decision-making and followup stand in the way of the continuous improvement of a system intended to deal with food safety incidents in Canada.”

Laws said Canada’s meat companies are working to achieve the highest levels of food safety. Since the FSIS audit, the companies have stepped up their testing for E. coli. CFIA has established new inspection teams to check on meat plants and labelling of mechanically tenderized beef.

CFIA is also working on a system of fines for companies “that fail to respect federal meat safety requirements,” Gravelle said. CFIA is in the midst of consultations with the food industry about the consolidation and streamlining of its food safety inspection arising from legislation passed last year to overhaul the agency.

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