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CFIA Move Sends Message Food Safety Trumps Industry, Observers SayTuesday, October 15, 2013 > 09:59:41
(Ottawa Citizen – Kathryn May)
The Conservative government’s decision to move food inspection to the health portfolio ends a 20-year accountability debate and many say it sends a clear signal that food safety is a priority and its regulation shouldn’t be in the hands of the minister who promotes the agriculture industry.
Moving the Canadian Food Inspection Agency out of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada puts the responsibility for the safety of Canada’s food supply in the hands of three agencies – Health Canada, CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada – which will now report to Health Minister Rona Ambrose.
“A portfolio’s reporting is significant and this is a signal to the agriculture sector that the government is committed to food safety and it is the priority,” said one longtime senior bureaucrat.
It also puts an end to an accountability debate that has raged on and off since CFIA was created and the agriculture industry and farmers successfully convinced the government that the regulator should report to the minister of agriculture, not the minister of health.
CFIA was one of the new quasi-independent agencies the Liberals created in the late 1990s as part of their program review, which rolled the inspection services of Health Canada, Agriculture, and Fisheries and Oceans into the new agency. The largest part of the operation came from Agriculture.
Those involved in the agency’s creation said there was fiery debate pitting those who felt the agency should go to Health, because human health was central to its mandate, and the agriculture industry, which worried it would take a back seat to health and safety and be saddled with heavy-handed regulation that would eat into profitability.
The big question is why now? The announcement was made with no fanfare, just notices posted on websites, emails to employees and union officials gathered for in-house briefings. Some say the timing fits the “consumers first” agenda that the government is widely expected to unveil in the upcoming throne speech, sending the message that it is looking out for the health and safety of Canadians even at the expense of industry.
The timing may also be right because the current deputy minister at Health Canada, George Da Pont, came from CFIA where he was president. The industry may feel more comfortable with the shuffle with someone it knows and has worked with at the helm. Politically, Da Pont’s experience at CFIA also makes him a safe pair of hands in managing the transition of the move.
Alan Nymark, a former deputy minister who has long felt the potential for conflict was too great for CFIA to be placed under the control of the agriculture minister, said the public loses trust in public institutions when roles are unclear or there is even a perception of conflict of interest.
“This should boost confidence for Canadians in the institution that is looking after food safety, but it will also boost expectations,” he said. “If Canadians have larger expectations than before because the government is saying this is important then they will have to deliver ... something of substance.”
Nymark, who held various senior posts, including at Health Canada, is a strong advocate for regulatory responsibility and said the government could improve food safety without adding to the regulatory burden. It could increase resources for prevention of food-borne illness, invest in public science, monitor best practices around the world or impose heavier fines for those who fail to follow rules.
Nymark has long argued that governments, in making jobs and growth an overriding priority, have in the past 25 years seen regulations as a cost to government and burden to industry – until a crisis erupts. He said aligning the way the CFIA is managed with its objective to keep food safe gets rid of the distractions and potential conflicts of “selling the beef.”
A major machinery change is not taken lightly in government. Moving a department is a prerogative of the prime minister and involves changing deputy minister mandates and ministerial portfolios as well as many logistical and administrative decisions that would take the Privy Council Office months to figure out.
In a memo to employees, CFIA President Bruce Archibald stressed the move wasn’t about cost-cutting but rather sharpening accountabilities. He said CFIA will still have three main business lines that answer to him but all non-food work, such as plant protection and animal health will remain under the Agriculture portfolio. He said the “process for how the agency will interact with the ministers of Agriculture and Health are currently being developed.”
The move will create some upheaval for CFIA, which has deep ties to Agriculture. They share a similar culture, some internal services and are co-located – in separate buildings – at the Skyline complex at Baseline and Merivale roads. No employees will be relocated.
CFIA found itself at the centre of the political storms over Maple Leaf’s deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008 and last year’s massive recall of contaminated beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., which led to the scrutiny of independent reviews, new regulatory initiatives and proposals to modernize the agency’s food inspection program. Since 2006, the government has hired 750 inspectors and pumped $517 million into the agency.
David Butler-Jones, the Chief Health Officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said putting the agencies under the same roof should answer those concerns as well as any over Agriculture’s perceived conflict.
“I was comfortable with the previous system and the new system will take time to work through but I think it has advantages and will bring clarity on the roles for the public,” said Butler-Jones.
The NDP called the move cosmetic and said it showed the government had lost faith in Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. Ritz was criticized and even faced calls for his resignation over the crises, though several bureaucrats said it was never felt that he crossed the line and put interests of business ahead of safety.
Ron Wasik, a consultant for the food processing and service industries, said he supports the move but said industry has long thought Health Canada was “steering CFIA” anyway so the reorganization will be seen as “formality.”
Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, said a change in governance won’t solve underfunding or the ongoing shortage of inspectors.
“I think it’s a way of deflecting attention. It doesn’t change much in the way the outfit functions ... and doesn’t do a single thing for inspectors on the front line. The only thing that might be positive about this is maybe Ambrose has more influence than Ritz and she can get the resources the agency needs.”