Consumer group sees ups, downs in food bill

A leading Canadian consumer advocate has offered qualified support for proposed new food safety legislation.

However, he has also called for radical improvements in “our food health protection system.”

Mel Fruitman, vice-president of the Consumers Association of Canada, used a Nov. 1 appearance before the House of Commons agriculture committee to offer faint praise for the government’s proposed safe food legislation S-11 and to call for an end to the conflicting dual roles of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency between regulator and promoter.

“Even though we support this bill, we hope that you are not lulled into believing that it will alleviate the deficiencies in our food health protection system,” he told MPs.

“Note that our supportive comments use the conditional tense.”

Fruitman said government should embrace irradiation as a safer food tool and consider buying recently developed vaccines designed to reduce E. coli levels in cattle feces and organizing a mass inoculation of the Canadian cattle herd.

However, his most dramatic accusation was that the recent E. coli incident at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., was caused in part because the agency has a split personality of food safety and industry promotion.

He said a major cause of the XL Foods “fiasco” was the agency’s uncertainty about its role.

“Finally and maybe most importantly, we feel that many of the shortcomings were because there is a cultural identity problem within CFIA,” he said. “Are they guardians or promoters?”

He said the consumers association’s solution is to move the CFIA out of Agriculture Canada’s jurisdiction and made the responsibility of another item on its wish list — a federal consumer affairs department.

Fruitman said the CFIA failed on both sides of its current mandate during the XL issue: contaminated meat made it to store shelves and the U.S. border was temporarily closed to product from the plant and Canada’s trade reputation damaged.

“It is our belief that the dual responsibilities that led to cultural schizophrenia inhibit CFIA’s capability to professionally do its prime job, the protection of the Canadian consumer from harmful food products,” he said. “Unfortunately, concerns about how certain domestic actions and publicity may be viewed by our trading partners have an effect on the timing, details and efficacy of response.”

Rural Ontario Conservative MP Ben Lobb challenged Fruitman’s view of the CFIA not being able to fulfill both sides of its mandate.

Inspectors in packing plants concentrate on that job with no thought of trade, he said, while officials in other parts of the agency are involved in trade missions to assure importers about the strength of the Canadian meat safety system.

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