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Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

Canadian Food Inspection Agency—Food Inspection Programs

(Chapter 25 - December 2000 Report of the Auditor General)

1 November 2001

Sheila Fraser, FCA
Auditor General of Canada

I would like to thank your Committee for this opportunity to discuss Chapter 25 of our 2000 Report, Canadian Food Inspection Agency—Food Inspection Programs.

With me today are Douglas Timmins, Assistant Auditor General and Neil Maxwell, the Principal responsible for this audit.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was created in 1997, an important move that consolidated the food inspection activities of three departments in one entity. The Agency is responsible for food inspection activities as well as animal health and plant protection activities. The Agency is unique in that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act requires that it publish, in its annual report, information on its performance and an assessment by the Auditor General of the fairness and reliability of that performance information. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss performance reporting in the CFIA and other new agencies at a future hearing, given the Committee's interest in this matter.

Our audit focussed on the Agency's food inspection programs, and was completed about one year ago. It did not extend to activities of Health Canada or those of provinces, territories, or municipalities, all of which are involved in food safety.

We examined a number of initiatives the Agency has undertaken to fulfil its mandate—to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of federal food inspection. We found good progress on a number of these initiatives. However, we also found that progress on other important initiatives has varied. I would like to focus my discussion on issues that we reported regarding two of these initiatives.

The first issue I would like to discuss is about non-compliance by establishments. We reviewed 21 inspection files that were high-risk because they had either been involved in a recall or were being prosecuted. We found a number of cases where inspectors did not verify that establishments corrected problems within given deadlines. We also identified cases where, in the face of persistent non-compliance, the inspector did not choose to take more serious actions to have the problem corrected, or, because of legislative limitations, was not able to do so.

While conclusions on all of the Agency's compliance activities cannot be drawn from our review, we urged the Agency to correct the compliance problems we identified and to develop new regulatory and legislative options for dealing with non-compliance. We are concerned that a high proportion of our file reviews identified cases where problems recurred or persisted for up to two years.

At the time of our audit, the Agency had drafted legislation that it saw as significantly enhancing its compliance and enforcement tools and its controls over imports. Your Committee may wish to obtain an update on the draft legislation from the Agency. As well, it may wish to ask the Agency about how it intends to address these compliance issues, both with and without legislative changes.

The second issue relates to the management of the non-federally registered sector. Management of this sector is a challenge due to its size and the variety of commodities it produces. It represents about half of the food-processing sector and generally includes many of the domestic processed foods you find in the middle of your grocery store—items like peanut butter, bread, cookies, infant formula, soft drinks, and coffee.

We are concerned that the Agency has not assessed the overall risks associated with this sector to determine the level of resources needed to manage the risks. Instead it is focussing on identifying specific product risks, such as for bean sprouts. The Agency disagreed with our recommendation, noting that it does not believe an overall assessment of risks is reasonable for it to undertake. We appreciate the limitations, but we think that it is crucial, and possible, for the Agency to conduct an assessment of the overall extent of risk in the sector.

The Agency also believes that it cannot implement our recommendation in this area because it is constrained in its activities in the non-federally registered sector by legislation, and by the Constitution of Canada, because the Agency shares responsibility for this sector with the provinces, territories, and municipalities. Nevertheless, the Food and Drugs Act gives broad food inspection powers to the Agency, sufficient to support a variety of different inspection approaches. Moreover, because responsibility is shared, we expected the Agency to consult widely with the provinces, territories, and municipalities on its activities, but we found that the Agency had not. We believe that questions such as how much inspection attention should be paid to the non-federally registered sector merit public debate—a debate in which parliamentarians could play a valuable role. Your Committee may wish to ask the Agency if it intends to launch a broad consultation on its role in the non-federally registered sector.

Apart from these two particular concerns, the chapter examines a number of other important issues such as human resources, import controls, and the Agency's implementation of its hazard analysis and critical control point approach, also known as HACCP.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my opening statement and we would be pleased to answer your Committee's questions.