No deadline set to resolve import disputes

Government says it continues to work on diafiltered milk and fraudulent poultry issues but won’t commit to a timeline

Federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay says there is no deadline to resolve import issues that the dairy and poultry industries say are costing millions of dollars.

Appearing before the House of Commons’ international trade committee Sept. 20, MacAulay said he and the government are well aware of concerns about diafiltered milk and fraudulent poultry meat imports but want to make sure any solutions hold up for the long term.

“To put a date on it would be inappropriate, and I’m sure you understand that,” he said in response to a question from Saskatchewan Conservative MP Randy Hoback.

The dairy industry says imports of U.S. diafiltered milk cost Canadian producers about $231 million each year because of a loophole the government should close.

Canadian border officials consider diafiltered milk a protein ingredient, used mainly for cheese, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency considers it milk. Federal regulations require cheese sold in Canada to be made with a certain percentage of real milk.

The issue with spent fowl is the import of broiler meat under the spent fowl label. Spent fowl meat is used for things such as soups and chicken nuggets and does not fall under supply management.

Yves Ruel, manager of trade and policy for Chicken Farmers of Canada, told the committee that 2012 imports of spent fowl were 101 percent of U.S. slaughter volume.

“As you can understand, this is not possible,” he said.

“Based on our conservative estimates, we believe that about 37 million kilograms were imported illegally last year. We figure that about 40 percent of the imports are illegal.”

He said the imports are an economic and food safety threat. It would be impossible to properly advise consumers in case of a recall because a box labelled spent fowl might have actually contained broiler meat, he added.

MacAulay would say only that the government is working on both issues.

He wouldn’t offer a firm deadline for resolution, saying to do so would be “completely wrong.”

“I’ve only been here eight or nine months,” he said. “You can’t do everything at once.”

That didn’t sit well with previous Conservative agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who now sits on the international trade committee.

He said the Liberals didn’t have to start at zero on either file.

“A tremendous amount of work was done over the last couple of years leading up to the election call and the (Trans-Pacific Partnership) final negotiations, which put everything on hold,” he told the meeting.

“You’re 70 yards down a 100-yard dash, so I expect that it would not be difficult to put a timeline in place saying where you expect to be by next spring.”

NDP agriculture critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau didn’t buy MacAulay’s claim that there hadn’t been enough time for the government to resolve the dairy issue.

“We’d like an answer and I think farmers deserve an answer,” she said.

“It’s been almost a year.”

Dairy Farmers of Canada executive director Caroline Emond said she didn’t know what more she could tell MPs. The organization communicated with the government 59 times between 2011 and 2015, and it continued to do so after last fall’s election, she added.

“When it comes to the issue of diafiltered milk, at this point I am truly at a loss for words,” she said.

“Everybody knows the issue now. Everybody knows the potential solutions. Now is the time for action.”

Meanwhile, dairy organizations from several countries earlier this month wrote letters to their governments asking them to challenge Canada’s protectionist dairy policies at the World Trade Organization.

As a consequence of diafiltered milk imports, Ontario approved the establishment of a new milk class and pricing several months ago to allow its dairy producers to compete. A national agreement is expected.

Producers in the other countries say this conflicts with free trade principles.

“Canada’s increasingly protectionist policies violate their international trade obligations, hold out the prospect of trade diversion with attendant global price-depressing impacts and are in conflict with the principles of free markets and fair and transparent trade,” said the letter.

“We therefore request the authorities of Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, the U.S. and the EU commission to initiate a WTO dispute settlement proceeding against Canada, once the agreement details are announced.”

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