House of Commons unanimously approves food safety bill

Despite opposition misgivings, the government’s Safe Food for Canadians Act, S11, was passed unanimously into law by a vote of 280-0 in the House of Commons Nov. 20.

Regulations to implement the detail of the wide-ranging bill now will be drawn up by the government, and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said industry that has some concerns about the implications of the bill will be consulted.

“This is an historic step improving Canada’s food safety system,” Ritz told a news conference hours before the bill sailed through the Commons after limited debate and a few House of Commons agriculture committee hearings, where a truncated list of witnesses was invited to appear.

It already had been approved by the Senate and after its June unveiling, made it through Parliament relatively quickly.

The autumn E. coli issue with contaminated meat coming from the XL Foods plant in Brooks gave political urgency to the issue, although S-11 was a version of a bill proposed several times before in minority Parliaments but not approved.

The bill gives the Canadian Food Inspection Agency increased powers to inspect imported food and regulate food importers and to demand timely and understandable food inspection data from food companies. It sharply increases potential fines for anyone convicted of tampering with food products and sets the groundwork for imposing a national food system traceability system.

“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will have stronger modernized tools to better protect Canadians and enhance industry compliance,” said Ritz.

However, the government rejected opposition calls to ask a third-party firm or the federal auditor-general to conduct an audit of CFIA resources available to do its mandated oversee of Canadian food safety.

The bill requires that an audit be done in five years.

The government has not indicated when S-11 will be proclaimed into law.

Opposition MPs, while supporting the bill, were critical.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said the government was wrong to reject proposals such as a third-party audit and protection for plant workers who complain about their company’s bad safety practices.

Suggestions for legislative “tweaks” from supportive industry groups were brushed aside by the Conservative majority, which argued the problems can be fixed in regulations.

“It started out as decent legislation,” he Allen. ” It could have been great legislation.”

Liberal agriculture critic Frank Valeriote insisted that while he supported S-11, existing legislation gave the CFIA the power to act more aggressively in dealing with XL. New legislation was not needed.

The agency was too cozy with the company, he added.

“I think this is helpful legislation, but it also is a bit of cover because it purports to give new food inspection powers that already exist if the legislation that we have on the books now was actually enforced,” he said.