CFIA president missed public relations opportunity when saying no to interview

By any measure, 2013 was a momentous year for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the new year looks no different.

It got a new president in August — former Ontario deputy agriculture minister Bruce Archibald.

In the autumn, it got a new minister — health minister Rona Ambrose — and became part of Health Canada after years within Agriculture Canada.

As the year ended, there was a flurry of Health Canada announcements about toughening food safety regulations.

And within CFIA, officials continued to scramble to write the regulations needed to bring the Safe Food for Canadians Act into force by 2015.

Instead of its normal public image as a crisis management agency when a food-borne illness incident breaks out, the government has been putting the agency forward proactively as a frontline protector of food safety and consumers.

So with these myriad changes and higher profile, it seems an odd time for the CFIA’s top official to shun publicity and a chance to introduce himself to Canadians and to explain what the changing of the guard means.

Archibald decided against allowing an end-of-year interview, although the request had been in for months and a mid-December interview had been booked. Many of his predecessors subjected themselves to such scrutiny.

No explanation was given other than that he decided to pass.

With no current crisis or challenge to CFIA performance, it would have been an opportunity in calm times to get the story out about a presumably new and improved food safety system and CFIA’s changing role.

He would have been asked questions such as:

• How did your background in agricultural and economic bureaucracy prepare you for the presidency of CFIA?

• After more than four months on the job, have there been any surprises for you?

• How do you see the shift to Health Canada changing the culture and effectiveness of the agency and how will it mesh with Agriculture Canada in areas where there is overlap?

• Questions from politicians, union leadership and some consumer advocates about the adequacy of CFIA staffing and funding, particularly at the food inspection level, will continue in the new year. How do you respond to the questions?

• How is the agency coping with the requirement to complete Safe Food Act regulations within the next year? Is the effort diverting resources from other responsibilities and will you meet the deadline?

• What are your top priorities for 2014?

These surely are not taxing questions for an experienced bureaucrat like Archibald. Canadians who depend on the CFIA to police food safety rules likely would have been interested in the answers.

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