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CFIA makes a bold promise, but time will tell

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You would be hard pressed to find anyone involved in almost any sector of agriculture regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) who has anything positive to say (that is officially or publicly) about that federal organization. Comments by stakeholders and organizations about the agency’s high-handedness, arrogance and self-righteousness are always made in hushed tones in the hallways of meetings, and definitely out of earshot of any CFIA officials. That’s because most of the folks making any complaints about CFIA activities or decisions always cite the fear of retaliation by CFIA officials and inspectors.

Since its inception, by accident or design, the CFIA created an attitude of infallibility — it was either its way or the highway. That approach was backed up by regulatory power, big budgets, no accountability, no appeal and timid political governance. Anyone subject to CFIA regulations knew that reality and accepted that resistance was futile, hence the fear surrounding that agency. Even appeals through every possible channel by producer, commodity and processing organizations to various ministers of agriculture proved futile. That’s mostly because politicians know instinctively that questioning the role of an agency that protects food safety is political suicide with the voting public.

But to the surprise I expect of almost everyone, the CFIA recently released a document entitled “The Statement of Rights and Service for Producers, Consumers and other Stakeholders.” It basically clarified the CFIA’s role during the inspection process and defining standards and expectations in six sectors it regulates. The statement also referred to the establishment of a new complaints and appeals mechanism. There were no specific details, but it is to be in place by April 1, 2012.

The robustness of the appeal process (including appeal to the courts and the minister) will be critical to CFIA credibility in this bold step into accountability and transparency. Anything less would deem this just a public relations exercise to dress up the stained image of the CFIA.

At this point it’s difficult to determine where the initiative for this astounding move by the CFIA came from. There is in place an oversight/advisory board that is supposed to govern the CFIA, but it has been seen to be toothless and a pawn of senior CFIA bureaucrats. If that board after all these years has come to understand the notoriety of the CFIA and has finally determined to rein it in, it is to be commended. Perhaps the changing of the guard at the CFIA senior bureaucrat level has caused the agency to realize that a new approach has to be taken in this age of accountability and transparency. What a great leap forward that would be, and perhaps an inspiration to other federal government departments.

One can’t help but suspect that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had something to do with encouraging this bold step. The minister has been a dynamo of activity over the past few years, what with tireless trade promotion, food safety and the CWB issue, so why not rattle the CFIA cage at the same time? The minister has probably been frustrated himself by some past CFIA decisions, never mind the constant lobbying by groups to tame the CFIA tiger. If he played a part, he is to be warmly congratulated.

The response from the industry is cautiously optimistic. The livestock sector in particular has had some major clashes with the CFIA starting with BSE, then on SRM removal and now traceability to mention a few. If industry sees a fair and robust CFIA appeal process, it will go a long way to repairing the relationship with livestock organizations.

Having said all that, time will tell if the CFIA will live up to the spirit of their newly found inspiration. Words and promises are all too easy. In the end wouldn’t it be a great leap forward if this accountability initiative caused those that are regulated by the CFIA to see it as a partner in bringing safe food to the consumer rather than as an antagonist to be feared? Let’s hope the courage, determination and honesty is there in the CFIA to make this work.

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