Speedy passing of food bill may put brakes on trade

As many politicians and agricultural leaders have pointed out over the last few weeks, the devil will be in the details of Bill S-11, the Safe Food for Canadians Act.

While it seems most agree that the bill is generally headed in the right direction, there are plenty of pitfalls that should be considered before it is passed. And it will be passed quickly, because that’s the way the Conservative majority government handles all of its bills.

S-11 sped through its clause-by-clause evaluation at the standing committee on agriculture in just two hours Nov. 6, and will likely headed to the House for third reading the week of Nov. 19.

That’s pretty fast for a massive bill with far-reaching consequences for agriculture and the economy.

Liberal ag critic Frank Valeriote made a motion for an extension on the bill’s debate in committee, but was voted down. The Conservative majority on the committee also voted down amendments, such as the suggestion that an audit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency be included.

Worse, two days of hearing witnesses — an historically tiny number — were irrelevant. All the Conservatives on the committee seemed to hear was that people supported S-11 in principle, and then moved on despite the raising of some good points.

For example, Christian Lacasse, Canadian Federation of Agriculture vice-president and former Union des producteurs agricoles president, expressed his concern that producers who send cattle to other provinces for slaughter will need to obtain a new permit to do so.

Since not all provinces have slaughter plants, the new bill would set up an uneven playing field for many producers.

Lacasse also identified issues around access to confidential information. The bill says inspectors should have access to producers’ computers, but those computers contain a lot of confidential information unrelated to traceability.

Lacasse wants those inspection powers to be limited, and rightly so.

Keith Mussar, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters, noted that export food processors can presently use certain ingredients that are not allowed in Canadian foods, such as spices.

If these ingredients don’t meet Canadian food standards under the new act, they will not be allowed into the country. The bill prohibits the export of foods if they do not meet Canadian requirements, even if they meet those of the importing country. That, said Mussar, will cost Canada jobs and trade.

These are not just the finer points of a bill, but important issues that should have been considered before the bill cleared the committee.

The House will now approve the bill before the regulations attached to it are written, which is not unusual: bills often pass to provide direction for regulation and law. However, it’s difficult to endorse such a bill when the details are not available.

As Lacasse said, S-11 will overhaul existing regulations, but ag groups do not know what the regulations will be. He asked to see the regulations as soon as possible and to be consulted on them before they are etched in stone. Based on the speed with which S-11 is hurtling through the passage process, it’s hard to assume consultation will occur in any real sense.

However, S-11 regulations should be carefully examined to ensure the agriculture and food industries are not hamstrung by red tape, trade problems and higher fees.

Canadian farmers and processors have been well-served by the testimony provided to the ag committee by farm group leaders, who obviously read the small print, considered it carefully and provided intelligent direction. It is profoundly to be hoped the government listens.

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