Proposals in food safety act will help calm consumer fears

It’s been a while coming, and that might not be a bad thing if they get it right.

Details are finally starting to emerge about the Safe Food For Canadians Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2012.

The move to modernize the country’s food safety systems will bring four acts under one all-encompassing law.

A key proposal of the new act would license all food manufacturers in the country. The regulation should assist in developing new points of contact between government and processors. Ongoing relationships are important to opening dialogue channels, which should, in the longer term, help develop accurate and fair information sharing in times of crises.

Communication breakdowns were cited as a major problem during the tainted beef recall of 2012 at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta., which ultimately led to the temporary closure of the plant and its reopening under new ownership.

Licensing would also set out clear rules of accountability for food processing companies, spell out requirements for preventive control plans such as the hazard analysis critical control points system, have stricter record keeping requirements, have clear recall plans and mandate stiffer penalties for companies that place consumer health at risk.

There are also requirements that foreign food imports comply with Canadian regulations, thus ensuring domestic manufacturers are not placed in a disadvantaged position because of the new regulations.

As well, initiatives that improve scientific testing, equipment and laboratory facilities to speed up and improve inspections speak directly to public concerns that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and food manufacturers need to respond more quickly in times of emergency.

The plan to establish 10 teams to oversee and audit inspectors at federally registered meat processing facilities should add another level of consumer protection.

An audit team that can regularly assess procedures, as well as offer analyses and reviews from a more distant and hopefully dispassionate perspective, might be able to correct mistakes made by on-the-ground inspectors, or provide added support for their decisions.

There is still a long way to go before the final details are known. The federal government is only now starting to gather input and reaction to its proposals.

The final version of the regulations isn’t expected to be complete until sometime next year.

However, the overriding principles to modernize, clarify and unify existing rules make good sense. The world and our food manufacturing systems have changed dramatically in recent years, and we need a food safety and inspection system that keeps up.

Concepts like being able to trace meat back to the packer or the farm weren’t even contemplated when the last rules were written.

We live in an age where consumer skepticism and engagement are extremely high. They want to know where their food comes from and they want to be assured it is safe.

A thorough and quick-acting system that balances company accountability with consumer protection and communication will serve farmers well.

A situation that’s permitted to spiral out of control, sparking public outcry and lack of confidence in the safety of our food, ultimately reverberates all the way back to the farm in tarnished reputations and lost sales.

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