CFIA says farewell to Ag Canada

CFIA moves to Health Canada | Oversight of food inspection now rests with health minister

The federal government has decided to move the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to Health Canada after a 16 year stay at the agriculture department.

The decision, which was announced Oct. 9, effectively removes Agriculture Canada’s oversight of food inspection and food safety and makes health minister Rona Ambrose the key minister on the file. She also oversees the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

“As a government, we are always looking for ways to improve how we share information and how we communicate with Canadians when it comes to food safety,” Ambrose said in a note to Health Canada staff after the CFIA move was announced.

She noted it will give the department responsibility for CFIA’s food inspection and safety functions to go with responsibility for the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“This reporting change will allow for better co-ordination, collaboration and communication when it comes to food safety,” she said.

“This change also further underscores the CFIA’s commitment to food safety as a top priority.”

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz will continue to oversee CFIA plant and animal health work, plant varietal regulation and export promotion.

Livestock and meat industry representatives gave the move cautious approval while acknowledging that details of the logistics and division of responsibilities still must be worked out.

Opposition MPs called it a demotion for Ritz in response to his handling of past food safety scares, including listeria-contaminated products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in 2008 and E. coli in products from an XL Foods plant in Alberta last year.

“(Prime minister) Stephen Harper has finally demoted minister Ritz for his mishandling of this important public safety issue,” New Democratic Party agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said.

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association general manager Dennis Laycraft took a different view, rejecting the idea it was punishment for Ritz.

“We certainly wouldn’t interpret it that way,” he said.

“We have one of the best food safety systems in the world. This probably makes it easier for him to be out advocating for us around the world, and no one has done as much work on the market access issue as him.”

Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents many CFIA employees, said the switch in departments and ministers did not mean much.

“It really doesn’t change much from the way the system has worked before because health always has played a role,” he said.

“It flips ministers, and since minister Ritz has been under fire over food safety and inspection, I see this more as a diversionary tactic to deflect the criticism.”

The debate about which department CFIA should report to has been ongoing since the agency was created in 1997.

“In an area of shared responsibility such as food safety, roles need to be carefully defined and mechanisms established to resolve unanticipated problems,” said a 1998 auditor general report.

“The establishment of an accountability framework was a key concern during the creation of the CFIA. Specific responsibilities for food safety were assigned to the minister of agriculture and the minister of health.”

Critics have since complained that CFIA is in a conflict of interest because it is responsible for food safety and promoting Canadian food abroad as part of trade missions.

Ritz dismissed that complaint as well as the opposition contention that he was the loser in the decision to reduce his portfolio’s scope.

“I think it underscores the valuable work that Agriculture Canada does on the trade file. We are considered one of the economic portfolios now, and that is a big plus. No one is losing anything.”

He accused opposition MPs of politicizing the food safety issue.

“This is not a political decision,” he said. “It is a pragmatic, practical movement toward more collaboration and more effective, efficient food safety systems.”

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