The risk-based system opens door to innovation and allows industry to act quickly if changes to safety practices are needed
OTTAWA — The Canadian meat industry welcomes government plans to move toward risk based food safety assessments, but it also wants guarantees the new approach is fair and easy to implement.
“This should provide for a regulatory environment that permits competitiveness and facilitates innovation while improving food safety outcomes,” said Henry Mizrahi, past-president of the Canadian Meat Council.
The federal Safe Food for Canadians Act was introduced in 2012, and the accompanying regulations were published in mid-April.
The meat council represents Canada’s federally inspected plants, and its members say the regulations have not raised concerns. However, they want to make sure the final rules are clear.
“The concern that we have is that the clarity by CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) on acceptable innovations for food safety controls and interventions will be even more important with outcome based regulation in a risk based inspection environment,” he told the council’s annual meeting in Ottawa May 7-8.
“To date, there have been communication challenges faced by industry as CFIA goes through this period of considerable and monumental change in regulatory implementation and inspection enforcement compliance practices and structure.”
The council also wants assurances that there will be enough qualified Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors who understand the complexity of the meat business and plant operations.
“There is a concern among members that a redesign of business functions may dilute expertise of the front line inspectors and diminish their roles,” he said.
Plant operators want timely answers and decisions when question arise. Inspectors need strong training programs on best practices, sanitation, controls and plant design as well as more technical workshops for continuous improvement to protect human health, he said.
There should also be plans to eliminate provincial meat inspection and convert all plants to a federal standard.
“We do advocate that all meat processed in Canada should be inspected by the CFIA under the new Safe Food for Canadians Act and regulations,” Mizrahi said.
“Our highly regulated federal establishment must operate and compete in a domestic market in which there are highly different provincial meat … rules, some with very infrequent inspections.”
CFIA president Bruce Archibald said the agency plans to offer more objective and science-based regulations, but he did not provide specific details on what the 400 registered establishments might expect under a reformed system.
He also said work is continuing to streamline inspections and regulations with the United States, where a risk based approach is also being introduced to keep food safe.
The CFIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service are working to identify compatible regulatory approaches to ensure smooth flow of products across the borders, said Philip Derfler, deputy administrator of the FSIS.
Both countries do routine audits of each others’ systems, and final assessments are expected soon.
FSIS has no new statute to drive modernization, so it is working with current legislation to enhance food safety.
“We are committed to modernizing because we know it is necessary to achieve our primary objective, which is to prevent food borne illness,” he said.
One innovation is the recently established public health information system to collect and analyze data more quickly when food safety threats occur.
FSIS also launched a new web-based self-reporting tool for countries interested in exporting to the United States to demonstrate equivalency in food safety standards.
Regulations to keep food safe are necessary, but the industry must also take more responsibility, said Barry Carpenter, chief executive officer of the North American Meat Institute.
“The regulatory process raises the bar for the industry in total,” he said.
“It doesn’t lead the food safety process. The industry better be doing that on its own because they can react quickly, but certainly you have to have that bar.”
Constraints in the current regulatory process may inhibit innovation in new ideas in food safety practices.
“The bottom line is the food safety system cannot rely on the government regulations to get there. Regulatory processes take time, but industries have to react to the needs of food safety when the need is there and the science is there and not wait for the regulatory process to get them there,” he said.
“Change, especially innovative change, is necessary if we are to re-spond to global and complex nature of the world of which we work and live.”