Food processors lack clear rules on safety standards

Clinton and Pamela Cavers must have been completely baffled when Manitoba Agriculture in-spectors suddenly descended on their farm and issued a ticket for selling cured meats without regulatory approval.

After all, the Caverses had recently won a gold medal for their prosciutto in a promotional contest held by the very same government department.

The department then confused matters even more by providing them with a new licence to continue production of the meat, but no approval to sell it.

The Caverses, who farm at Pilot Mound, Man., have been producing specialty meat products for two years. Why, then, was it so important to raid their operation Aug. 28 — particularly when inspectors had visited the operation a mere month earlier?

This is one of many questions the Manitoba government should answer, particularly in light of all the hard work the Caverses did in conjunction with the ag department, trying to get a handle on necessary procedures, facilities and equipment.

The underlying problem seems to be that provincial regulations governing small food processors are unclear, and what regulations exist are federal and have been developed for factories and large processing plants.

The other issue is that the promotional and regulatory arms of Manitoba Agriculture don’t appear to know what the other is doing. Manitoba Agriculture should be congratulated for its efforts in promoting local farmers’ food and providing support to smaller processors. Unfortunately, the goals of that side of the department are not lining up with the regulatory side.

Furthermore, the raid was a heavy-handed response that seems unnecessary. A simple conversation with the Caverses would, more than likely, have solved the problem quickly.

Manitoba is not the only jurisdiction that needs to examine its regulatory environment, although the Cavers case is a good microcosmic look at what is not working. Other departments may also have regulations and policies that affect food processors. In Saskatchewan, for example, the liquor and gaming authority has stringent restrictions on the quantities of certain alcoholic beverages that can be produced. That can affect the orchardist who is producing cider or wine, even if the product is pronounced safe for consumption.

Clearly, food safety should be paramount. Consider the Maple Leaf listeriosis crisis that sickened and killed Canadians, and the XL Foods E. coli disaster of last year. Not only must Canadians be protected, but any contamination could spell the end of a farm or food processor’s business.

Indeed, there were likely food safety issues at the Cavers farm, where the processes were not up to standard, according to a food processing expert at the University of Manitoba.

However, that knowledge puts even more onus on the government, particularly one that promotes and encourages local food, to write clear regulations and assist food processors with technical support.

This will become even more important in the future. The local food movement is showing no signs of waning in popularity. Farmers markets have for years been popular places to shop for fresh vegetables, processed meat and beverages. Furthermore, local food production attracts young people to agriculture.

Fresh local food should be encouraged but also regulated and supported. In addition to being clear and fair, regulations must also be enforced in a decent and reasonable manner, not while yielding the big government stick.

This is not the first time that one government department, or department within a department, didn’t know what the other was doing, but that doesn’t make it more palatable.



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