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1994 Report of the Auditor General of Canada

Chapter 13—Federal Management of the Food Safety System

Main Points

Introduction

Background

The federal approach to food safety
Food safety is a shared jurisdiction
The 1986 federal food safety reforms

Audit Objectives and Scope

Observations and Recommendations

Organization and Responsibility for Federal Food Safety Activities

The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation has not completed its assigned tasks
Health Canada has the primary role for food safety
Federal food safety standards and inspection approaches differ among departments
Health Canada cannot ensure that the food safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act are applied fully and effectively

Inspection of Domestically Produced and Imported Food

Responsibility for inspection coverage within some federally registered establishments is unclear
Resources for inspection of food-processing establishments are allocated on the basis of safety and trade requirements
Targets for inspection frequency are not being met
Innovation and efficiency in food inspection vary among departments
A new Canadian Food Inspection System has been proposed
Imported food is receiving increased attention
Departments have not achieved the desired co-ordination of import control activities
Improved co-ordination with United States food inspection agencies could lead to better coverage of food imports

Cost Recovery

Federal food inspection costs are not recovered in accordance with Treasury Board policy

Reporting to Parliament on Food Safety Activities and Results

Information in the Estimates Part III is incomplete
The overall effectiveness of federal food safety activities is unknown

Recommendations to the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation

An agenda for the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation

Appendix 13.1—Federal Management of the Food Safety System

Appendix 13.2—Letter from the Comptroller General of the United States

Assistant Auditor General: David Roth
Responsible Auditor: Bill Rafuse

Main Points

13.1 Canadian food products are recognized as safe and of high quality. The federal food safety system works to ensure that food processed for sale in Canada and abroad is safe. In the opinion of Canadians and our international trading partners, these efforts are successful.

13.2 Federal management of the food safety system is co-ordinated by the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation, established in 1986. Health Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Industry Canada and Revenue Canada-Customs manage and deliver the federal program of food safety. The cost of this regulatory program, including the trade-related inspection activities, was $226 million in 1993-94, with salaries of the 3,600 federal employees accounting for most of that expenditure.

13.3 The goal of food safety programs is to reduce to negligible or acceptable levels the risk to human health. Food safety regulations are found in the Food and Drugs Act and, in some cases, are elaborated further in several other federal and provincial statutes.

13.4 In 1986, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation was given a mandate to implement specific changes to the food safety system and to promote innovation and efficiency in food inspection. The Committee has yet to complete all of the assigned tasks and has not reported as intended. Although progress has been made, several steps are still needed to promote efficiency and ensure that the system remains effective in keeping Canada's food supply safe.

13.5 Health Canada cannot ensure that the food-related health and safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act are applied fully and effectively to all food produced domestically or imported for sale in Canada. Gaps exist in the information received from inspection agencies and in the coverage they achieve.

13.6 The federal resources for food inspection are allocated on the basis of legislated safety and trade requirements. One half of the federal inspection resources are spent on low-risk food processes, primarily to satisfy trade requirements. Without this expenditure, for example, meat and some fish products could not be exported.

13.7 The federal and provincial governments have proposed a new Canadian Food Inspection System in an effort to harmonize food safety standards and streamline inspection activities.

13.8 Departments have not complied with the Treasury Board's policy on cost recovery. In the five years the policy has been in place, hundreds of millions of dollars have not been recovered from industry for both safety- and trade-related inspection services.

13.9 The Estimates Part III does not provide members of Parliament and others with an overall understanding of federal food safety activities. Information on objectives, resources and performance is not readily available.

13.10 The members of the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation are collectively responsible for ensuring that federal food safety programs are evaluated periodically. They have not carried out this responsibility and, as a result, the effectiveness of federal spending on food safety is unknown.

Introduction

13.11 Canada is recognized as a country with an abundant supply of food that is safe, nutritious and of high quality. Food quality refers to the wholesomeness and grade of food, and nutrition to its value in the human diet. The safety of food refers to the risk to human health. The goal is to reduce to negligible or acceptable levels any human health risk.

13.12 The main risks to human health are from chemical and microbiological contamination and natural toxins. Secondary risks arise from the mislabelling of allergens, additives and preservatives. These risks are present during the production, processing and distribution of food, and extend to its eventual consumption in restaurants, institutions and the home.

13.13 Our audit examined the organization and co-ordination of food safety activities among the five federal departments directly involved in delivering the federal mandate for food safety. The 1993-94 federal expenditures on food safety and quality programs, by department, are presented in Exhibit 13.1 .

13.14 The statutory requirements are found in the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations and several other federal statutes that regulate international and interprovincial trade and commerce in food and food products. The food safety activities of the five federal departments include:

  • setting food safety standards and regulations;
  • developing methods to identify food-borne risks;
  • inspecting imported foods and food-processing establishments, including their products and monitoring processes;
  • enforcing regulations and standards;
  • investigating complaints and incidents of food-borne illness; and
  • educating and informing industry and the public.
13.15 Provincial governments also play a large role in ensuring the safety of the Canadian food supply. Under their public health and intraprovincial trade mandates, they regulate and control certain aspects of food safety, mainly at the retail and food service level.

13.16 Food producers, processors and distributors also have a very important role in managing the health risks associated with the food supply. Many food-processing establishments have modified their quality assurance programs to control risk, and some have adopted food safety practices that exceed federal standards. Of course, the educated and informed consumer must accept some measure of the risk for food prepared in the home.

13.17 In 1988, we reported on the food inspection programs of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. At Fisheries and Oceans Canada we found that procedures to inspect fish products for health and safety defects were adequately controlled. The audit at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada concluded that the Department had not fully determined which risks were most serious to human health and safety so that its resources could be concentrated in those areas. Also, the audit recommended that several key inspection practices be strengthened. Our 1990 follow-up work at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada found that these issues were being addressed.

13.18 In 1991, we examined the cost-recovery practices of the inspection programs of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and, as part of our 1993 audit of that Department's Agri-Food Policy Review, we examined the review activities related to the pesticide registration system.

13.19 The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation is responsible for planning and co-ordinating the federal food safety system. Our recommendations (see paragraphs 13.124 and 13.125) are therefore addressed to that committee.

Background

13.20 The Canadian food industry has a major impact on the national economy. In 1990, food processing was the second largest industry in Canada's manufacturing sector, with production at $39 billion (see Exhibit 13.2 ) and employing 200,000 workers.

13.21 One quarter of Canada's food production is exported and our trading partners recognize these products to be safe and of high quality. Canadians also believe that the food they purchase is generally safe (see Exhibit 13.3 ).

13.22 When unsafe food is consumed, food-borne illnesses may result. Data published by Health Canada for the period 1975-1987 showed that an average of 940 incidents of food-borne illness, affecting 6,681 people, are reported each year. As Exhibit 13.4 shows, 74 percent of incidents of food-borne illness occur in restaurants or the home. The majority of these incidents are a result of food that is mishandled or improperly cooked.

13.23 The scientific community generally agrees that there are far more incidents than are reported by Health Canada. Estimates of the true number of Canadians affected annually by food-borne illnesses range widely, up to two million. Whatever the real number, the associated cost to the Canadian economy is considerable. According to Health Canada estimates, the increased health care costs, reduced productivity and lost markets amount to two to six billion dollars annually.

The federal approach to food safety
13.24 Federal food inspection programs were introduced in Canada as early as 1907 to control the spread of disease from animals to the food supply. Inspection programs were increased or modified over the years as new risks -- bacteria, chemicals and toxins -- were identified.

13.25 The Food and Drugs Act and Regulations set standards relating to safety and fraud for all food sold in Canada; their enforcement is provided for in criminal law. Other federal statutes containing food standards include the Meat Inspection Act , Fish Inspection Act , and Canada Agricultural Products Act . Those three statutes are intended primarily to enhance the marketability of food products traded interprovincially and internationally, through a combination of safety, quality and grading standards. The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act establishes the labelling requirements for consumer products packaged for sale in Canada. All of these statutes contain standards or specifications that complement or further define the food safety standards set out in the Food and Drugs Act . Exhibit 13.5 summarizes the scope of the federal food legislation in terms of the commodities and the food industry affected.

13.26 Health Canada has overall responsibility for health, safety and nutritional aspects of food, by virtue of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. This responsibility extends to food produced domestically and food imported for sale in Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada share the food safety responsibilities with Health Canada, and further regulate the marketability (quality, grade, safety, etc.) of food products traded interprovincially or internationally. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada also has overall responsibility for the fraud and labelling provisions of the Food and Drugs Act at other than the retail level. Industry Canada is responsible for the general labelling provisions of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and Regulations that apply to all pre-packaged consumer goods. It is also responsible for the enforcement of the fraud and labelling provisions of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations at the retail level of trade. Revenue Canada-Customs plays a significant supporting role by notifying federal departments of shipments and enforcing import regulations at ports of entry.

Food safety is a shared jurisdiction
13.27 The provincial and territorial governments have jurisdiction over public health matters, which extend to food manufactured, traded and sold within their borders. Together, they spend $50 million a year to inspect food-processing establishments. Provincial governments also inspect food retail facilities and the food service sector. In some provinces, municipal governments are also involved in regulation enforcement. In general terms, provincial legislation that refers to or parallels the federal requirements allows for the inspection of all establishments where food intended for human consumption is kept for sale.

13.28 Provincial and municipal health inspection programs have focussed on the food service industry -- restaurants and caterers -- and the food retail industry, including grocery stores, butcher shops and bakeries. Provinces are also responsible for inspecting dairies and meat slaughter and processing operations where products are traded only within the province. In some cases, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada inspects provincially registered meat slaughter and processing plants under an agreement with the provinces -- Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia are examples.

The 1986 federal food safety reforms
13.29 In 1985, the Task Force on Program Review (Nielsen Task Force) examined federal food inspection and regulatory programs. Following the review, the government reaffirmed the absolute primacy of the Minister of Health and the Food and Drugs Act in all matters related to food health, safety and nutrition. It also adopted several changes proposed by the Task Force to improve federal food inspection activities:

  • amend federal regulations to eliminate any inconsistencies or contradictions;
  • encourage the establishment of uniform health and safety standards for food-processing establishments at the federal and provincial levels;
  • co-ordinate federal inspection activities in registered plants and for imported foods;
  • exchange information among federal departments and provide for the periodic audit of the inspection process by Health Canada; and
  • clarify the accountability for, and coverage by, food inspection in food-processing plants not registered with the federal government.
13.30 In summary, the government directed the ministers of Health, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Fisheries and Oceans and Industry (then Consumer and Corporate Affairs) to pursue a more integrated approach to federal and provincial food regulation and inspection activities and to improve their co-ordination. It also directed that an interdepartmental food regulation committee be established, chaired by the Deputy Minister of Health and including the deputy ministers of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Fisheries and Oceans and Industry. That committee -- the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation -- was instructed to plan and co-ordinate the implementation of the government directive.

13.31 A more complete chronology of recent food safety events is presented in Exhibit 13.6

Audit Objectives and Scope

13.32 The objectives of our audit were to determine:

  • whether reasonable progress has been made in implementing the government's plan for food safety; and

  • what steps should be taken to further the economical, efficient and effective discharge of federal food safety responsibilities.
13.33 The audit examined federal management of the food safety system. It was not designed to reach any conclusions on the safety of Canada's food supply.

13.34 The scope of the audit included the five federal departments directly involved in food safety activities (see Exhibit 13.1). Other federal activities, such as Environment Canada's role in the molluscan shellfish program and the animal health and feed programs of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, also contribute indirectly to the safety of the food supply. As the focus of our audit was on the safety of food products, these indirect activities were excluded from our scope.

13.35 Chapter 13 of our 1993 Report described the changes resulting from the Pesticides Registration Review launched in 1989 by the Minister of Agriculture. Although the regulation and control of pesticides is related to food safety, because of our work last year we did not undertake additional work in that area.

13.36 The planning phase of the audit was completed in August 1992. At the request of the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation, we delayed the examination phase for one year to give departments time to advance or complete a number of initiatives that were under way. The Committee believed that the audit would be more useful if those initiatives were assessed and further improvements recommended.

13.37 In August 1993, the Auditor General of Canada and the Comptroller General of the United States agreed to undertake concurrent reviews of the collaboration between the food inspection agencies of both countries with respect to controls over food imported from third countries. In particular, the reviews were to assess the exchange of information on imported food products that fail to comply with the food safety standards of either Canada or the United States. A summary of the main findings of that work is presented in paragraphs 13.99 to 13.103 of this chapter, and further details are presented in Appendices 13.1 and 13.2.

Observations and Recommendations

Organization and Responsibility for Federal Food Safety Activities

13.38 In 1985, the Nielsen Task Force concluded that the roles and responsibilities of departments in the federal food safety system needed clarification. Subsequently, the government and the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation clarified and defined roles for each of the departments involved. Implicit in that definition is a model of checks and balances. The role of the Interdepartmental Committee in planning and co-ordinating the federal food safety system is key to the success of the model. However, the vital check in the system is the exercise by Health Canada of its primacy role and responsibilities. It is responsible for setting food safety standards and then checking that federal and provincial inspectors ensure that industry complies with these standards.

13.39 The 1986 government directive emphasized the importance of increased co-operation and co-ordination among departments in carrying out activities related to food safety. To that end, it authorized the establishment of the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation, with a mandate to plan, co-ordinate, evaluate, and promote innovation and efficiency in food inspection, including self-regulation by industry where appropriate. The Committee was also to advise ministers on food regulation and inspection policy and to report periodically to the government.

The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation has not completed its assigned tasks
13.40 The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation delegated many of its responsibilities to three sub-committees; a summary of their activities follows. Our findings concerning the Interdepartmental Committee's progress in the areas of reporting, innovation, efficiency and evaluation are also presented in this chapter.

13.41 The Sub-Committee on Food Regulations was established in 1986 to review regulations and statutes to ensure that terminology was uniform and consistent. The Sub-Committee on Food Inspection, also established in 1986, was to develop and implement strategies to co-ordinate inspection activities among federal departments and with the provinces and municipalities. In 1990, the Sub-Committee on Communication was created to develop a long-term plan for co-ordinating interdepartmental communications on food safety.

13.42 The Sub-Committee on Food Inspection has been the most active. It has established several working groups to address deficiencies in the interdepartmental exchange of data, and in controls over food imports. Working groups were also established to develop inspection procedures and approaches for assessing industry compliance with the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. In addition, the Sub-Committee was to reduce duplication of inspection activities in federally registered food-processing plants. Although plans have recently been developed or agreements reached in all of these areas, little change in practices has resulted.

13.43 The Sub-Committee on Food Regulations has not met since 1988, and has only partially completed its assigned tasks. The Sub-Committee on Communication has met six times, but has made little progress toward a plan to co-ordinate interdepartmental communications on food safety.

13.44 In addition to the sub-committees, two national co-ordinating committees were established in 1990, one by Health Canada and the other by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The food safety mandates of these committees are virtually identical and their terms of reference overlap in areas such as promotion of uniform food standards, communications between provincial and federal levels of government and liaison with consumers and the food industry. In October 1993, a joint steering committee was established, comprising members of the two national committees, representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and provincial health inspectors.

13.45 Numerous committees and working groups have been established to increase interdepartmental dialogue and consultation, and to address specific food safety issues. However, over the years, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation has suffered from a high turnover in membership and an absence of sustained focus. There has also been a lack of resources to support the ongoing operations of the Committee.

The Committee has been ineffective at setting an overall agenda for the food safety program and many of the assigned tasks have yet to be completed.

13.46 In 1988 and 1989, the Interdepartmental Committee presented two reports to the government. Both were critical assessments of federal food safety activities. The first report contained a list of "vulnerable areas", including problems in domestically manufactured foods, control of imported foods and the response to food safety problems and emergencies. One of the initiatives of the Committee was the establishment of a national emergency operations system to deal with food safety emergencies, in which Health Canada has the lead role (see Exhibit 13.7 ). The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation has not evaluated and reported on the effectiveness of this new system in responding to food safety crises.

13.47 The second report set out a plan addressing these and other areas to strengthen the federal food safety system. A key element of the plan was a sizable increase in resources for the four inspection departments. The Treasury Board approved additional annual funding of $38 million in 1990 (see Exhibit 13.8 ).

13.48 The Treasury Board requested that the Committee report back in two years on how the new resources had been used to strengthen the food inspection system. That report was not submitted. In addition, in 1990, the Interdepartmental Committee resolved "that a report should be prepared in about two years to provide Cabinet with information about the utilization of these new resources." That report was not prepared either.

13.49 We requested and received information from the departments involved on their use of the additional resources allocated by the Treasury Board for the food safety programs. Our concern, however, is with the failure of the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation to report to the Treasury Board and the government as intended. In the four years since additional funding was approved, $150 million has been spent without the stipulated accountability for that spending.

Health Canada has the primary role for food safety
13.50 The food safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act apply to the entire Canadian food processing and distribution sector. To fulfil its obligations under the Act, Health Canada must maintain current and relevant standards to meet Canadian needs, and see that there are reasonable enforcement strategies to safeguard the health and safety of the Canadian public. Those conditions were set out in the 1986 government directive.

13.51 The directive confirmed that the Minister of Health and the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act have primacy in all matters relating to food health, safety and nutrition. Health Canada's role in federally registered food-processing establishments was to set food safety standards, and to audit the inspection programs of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to ensure that inspections were conducted in accordance with those standards. These requirements cover 3,900 federally registered food-processing plants in Canada.

13.52 Also, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada were specifically directed to adopt (by reference) all relevant health and safety regulations pursuant to the Food and Drugs Act , and to eliminate any inconsistencies or contradictions in food safety regulations. That directive was partly met. The regulations to the Meat Inspection Act and the Canada Agricultural Products Act do refer to the health and safety standards of the Food and Drugs Act . The Fisheries Inspection Regulations will be amended when the current regulatory review is completed.

Federal food safety standards and inspection approaches differ among departments
13.53 Health Canada signed agreements in 1990 with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to review and endorse the food product sampling plans and testing procedures of those two departments. This was to ensure that the departments were inspecting food-processing plants in accordance with the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act . The current practice is that Health Canada informally reviews the sampling plans and testing procedures of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Health Canada intends to assess the adequacy of this practice with respect to fulfilling its primacy role.

13.54 In 1991, Health Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada began to develop uniform health and safety inspection standards and procedures. The objectives were to improve efficiency of the inspection system and to ensure fair, equitable treatment of all sectors of industry. Despite efforts by all three departments, the initiative has fallen behind schedule, and uniform procedures have yet to be approved for any food process.

13.55 In February 1992, Fisheries and Oceans Canada introduced a quality management program that resulted in major changes to its inspection procedures (see paragraph 13.79). Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is also developing new inspection procedures in its industry self-regulation project. Health Canada was consulted in both cases but did not document its review process and its conclusion that these revised inspection procedures satisfy the health and safety requirements of the Food and Drugs Act .

Health Canada cannot ensure that the food safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act are applied fully and effectively
13.56 Health Canada is not exercising its responsibility for food safety consistently across the food safety system. The Department does not have all of the information needed to assess whether federal and provincial departments and agencies are verifying compliance with the food safety requirements of the Food and Drugs Act , which apply to all food offered for sale in Canada.

13.57 In 1986, the government directed Health Canada to audit the other federal departments' food health and safety inspections of federally registered establishments and food imports, and to exchange information on the results of inspection activities. This was to provide Health Canada with a means to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act .

13.58 Following the signing of agreements in 1989 with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada began inspecting establishments jointly with the two other departments. These agreements covered information sharing, inspection standards, and roles and responsibilities for inspection of federally registered food-processing establishments. After conducting joint inspections for four years, Health Canada was unable to reach a conclusion on the food-processing industry's compliance with the health and safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act .

13.59 In 1993, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation directed that departments seek alternatives to joint inspections to avoid duplication of inspection activities. In January 1994, the departments agreed on a new audit role for Health Canada. The inspection programs of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada will be reviewed by Health Canada from the perspective of the health and safety requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. When that agreement is implemented, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation will approve the audit plans and review the results of audits, including follow-up actions.

13.60 Health Canada has established food safety committees and administrative agreements with each province to co-ordinate inspection activities and share information. We found, however, that Health Canada is not obtaining complete information from the provinces on the nature, extent, timing and results of food safety inspections they undertake. As a result, it cannot assess whether provincial and territorial departments and agencies are verifying compliance with health and safety standards equivalent to those of the Food and Drugs Act . Health Canada is not obtaining the fullest assurance possible from the provincial inspection activity.

Inspection of Domestically Produced and Imported Food

13.61 Since 1975, Health Canada has compiled information on food-borne diseases occurring in Canada. The latest information published in 1994 summarizes the incidence of food-borne illnesses for 1987. Although information provided in various formats by ten provinces and two territories cannot be summarized easily and quickly, a time lag of seven years is excessive and makes the information much less useful. The information is important in that it provides an ongoing indication of the effectiveness of the food safety system and can assist managers in allocating resources more efficiently. The current situation does not meet these needs.

Responsibility for inspection coverage within some federally registered establishments is unclear
13.62 Health Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada each inspect different sectors of the domestic food-processing industry to monitor compliance with applicable provisions of the Food and Drugs Act , as well as with the safety, quality, grade and labelling provisions set out in the Meat Inspection Act , Canada Agricultural Products Act , Fish Inspection Act and Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act . The level of inspection activity by each federal department is shown in Exhibit 13.9 .

13.63 The food safety provisions of the Food and Drugs Act apply to all food, whether domestically produced or imported for sale in Canada. However, the regulatory requirements of the other federal statutes, with the exception of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act , are based on both food safety and trade considerations. Establishments must register with the federal government if they process food for interprovincial or international trade. There are 2,600 food-processing establishments registered under the Meat Inspection Act and Canada Agricultural Products Act , and 1,300 establishments registered under the Fish Inspection Act . In the dairy, fruit and vegetable products sector, processing establishments that trade interprovincially or internationally must register under the Canada Agricultural Products Act only if they produce products listed under that statute; that is, products for which the Act sets out standards of quality and composition. Exhibit 13.10 depicts the registration requirements, responsibility for inspection and other related factors.

13.64 The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act applies to all food products packaged for direct sale to the consumer in Canada. The Meat Inspection Act , Fish Inspection Act and Canada Agricultural Products Act also apply to food imported into Canada. Food-processing establishments that either produce other types of products or sell only within one province are not required to obtain federal registration. Health Canada inspects 4,500 of the food-processing establishments that are not registered under the trade-based federal legislation.

13.65 We found that the responsibility for inspection coverage of a number of food products in plants registered by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, including many products that carry a high health risk, was not clear. In 1988, Health Canada agreed that its safety inspections in registered establishments would be conducted by the registering federal department. But, under the Canada Agricultural Products Act , Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada inspects the processing of only those products for which it maintains quality or grade standards.

13.66 If a registered plant processes food products for which no grade standards exist, such as chocolate, baby cereal and fruit drinks, those product lines may not be fully inspected for compliance with federal food safety standards by either Health Canada or Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. For example, in Ontario, more than one half of the food production in 37 federally registered establishments is not subject to federal quality and grade standards. These processes may not be fully inspected, even though many of them are classified as posing a high risk to human health.

Resources for inspection of food-processing establishments are allocated on the basis of safety and trade requirements
13.67 To ensure the efficient use of food safety inspection resources, delivery of the federal food safety programs needs to be based on an assessment of risk to human health. This assessment includes the potential for contamination associated with the food product (example: pathogenic micro-organisms and chemical residues), the processing operation (example: canning, freezing, cooking) and the plants' quality control procedures and history of compliance with regulatory requirements.

13.68 Federal inspection programs are based on the requirements set out in the statutes described in the preceding paragraphs. Inspection resources are allocated on the basis of regulatory requirements that cover safety, trade and grading. Health Canada's plant inspection resources are all allocated to the assessment of compliance with safety requirements. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada allocate plant inspection resources on the basis of both safety and trade requirements. We were not able to separate total plant inspection resources into their food safety and trade components.

13.69 In 1993, the Interdepartmental Sub-Committee on Food Inspection developed a ranking of food processes according to their potential risk to human health (see Exhibit 13.11 ). Comparing the allocation of total domestic inspection resources to these risk categories, we found significant variations among the three departments. To a large extent, these variations result from the trade requirements of foreign country export markets rather than from safety requirements (see Exhibit 13.12 ).

13.70 For example, meat slaughter plants are classified as low risk, because the bacterial contamination that may be carried by raw meat is presumed to be eliminated by further preparation and cooking by the consumer. However, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada allocates 60 percent of its total domestic inspection resources to meat and poultry slaughter plants. Many of those inspection activities are conducted to ensure compliance with requirements of our meat export markets. For example, ante- and post-mortem organoleptic (sensory) examinations are made of every animal destined for slaughter, under the supervision of a veterinarian. This is a mandatory export requirement of most foreign countries, even though the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and scientific validity of the sensory method of inspection for detecting risks to human health have been questioned since the early 1980s. Many of the diseases that it was designed to detect have been eradicated, and many invisible threats to human health, such as salmonella, E-Coli and drug residues, cannot be detected and controlled by such an inspection.

13.71 In contrast to the meat slaughter process, the canning of low-acid foods poses a high risk to human health if it is not done correctly. We found that the frequency of inspection for this high-risk process varied significantly among federal inspection programs, in part due to export requirements. Health Canada requires inspections of low-acid canneries once every 18 months to assess compliance with health and safety standards. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which enforces a trade and safety mandate, requires continuous inspection -- an inspector present in the plant at all times during the process -- of low-acid canned meat products. However, it requires only two inspections annually for low-acid canned vegetable products. Fisheries and Oceans Canada also enforces a trade and safety mandate and requires its registered low-acid canneries to be inspected at least every two months.

13.72 The nature and frequency of plant inspections are influenced by both safety and trade considerations and available resources. Inspection activities undertaken to ensure compliance with safety requirements of the Food and Drugs Act need to be uniformly based on the risk to human health posed by the processes involved. This has not yet been achieved.

Targets for inspection frequency are not being met
13.73 Although the four categories of risk applied to food-processing operations have been accepted by all departments, there is no overall federal approach to the management of food safety risks. The departments have defined different targets for inspection frequency in all of their inspection programs.

13.74 Health Canada increased its inspection activities over the last three years in plants that are not registered federally. However, we found that 35 percent of the 1,400 plants that Health Canada classifies as high risk were not inspected within the planned period of 18 months. For example, although Health Canada considers nut processing to be of high risk, we found that it has conducted only a quarter of the required inspections of nut processors over the last three years.

13.75 Fisheries and Oceans Canada bases its level of fish plant inspection on the compliance history of the individual plant. The seasonal nature of the fish industry also influences the level of inspection, as plants are inspected only while they are in operation. We found that fish canneries receive less than half the prescribed number of inspections during seasonal operations. Fisheries and Oceans Canada recently implemented a system to link plant operating days to inspection requirements.

13.76 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada delivers separate inspection programs for meat, dairy, and processed fruit and vegetable products. The meat slaughter and processing industry receives a high level of inspection coverage, with continuous inspection required for slaughter and most meat processing. In addition, meat slaughter and processing plants are inspected monthly by a regional inspector, and at least once a year by a national inspector. We found that monthly inspections of plants by regional officers were conducted only 70 percent of the time in 1992-93. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada requires annual in-depth inspections of its registered dairy plants, semi-annual inspections for low-acid fruit and vegetable canneries, and annual inspections of other fruit and vegetable processors. These inspection targets for dairy, fruit and vegetable processors were also not met.

Innovation and efficiency in food inspection vary among departments
13.77 In 1986, the government charged the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation with responsibility for promoting innovation and efficiency in food inspection, including greater self-regulation by industry where appropriate. In February 1994, the Interdepartmental Sub-Committee on Food Inspection initiated a study to rationalize the federal food safety laboratory capacity. The study will analyze testing methods, identify overlaps, gaps and duplications in testing programs, identify work-sharing opportunities, and rationalize services, taking into account the potential for cost recovery (see Exhibit 13.13 ).

13.78 One innovation in food safety inspection now being adopted in Canada and many other countries is the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system. This system recognizes the vital role and responsibility of industry in controlling the safety and quality of food products. HACCP has been endorsed by the CODEX Alimentarius Commission, a United Nations agency that sets food safety standards. This preventative system, which is managed by the processing plant, is composed of a risk analysis of the potential hazards posed by different foods, a determination of the critical control points in their processing, the establishment of a program to monitor and control those points, and a method to recall finished products from the market if it is learned that they are hazardous. Such hazards may be microbiological, chemical, physical or nutritional. This new approach will mean significant changes in current government inspection efforts and resource requirements. The role of government becomes one of setting standards and monitoring the food safety controls of industry.

13.79 Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with the participation of the fish-processing industry, has already developed and implemented a program based on this new inspection model. Since 1992, fish plants and processors have been required to play an active role in ensuring the safety and quality of their products by identifying and controlling the risks associated with processing. The Department now focusses its inspection efforts on verifying that systems and practices to control product safety are in place.

13.80 Health Canada is in the process of amending the Regulations to the Food and Drugs Act so that all food-processing establishments will be required to have systems to identify and control health and safety risks associated with food processing. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is also implementing a program of industry self-regulation based on the principles of HACCP. All of these initiatives need to be co-ordinated across the departments so that uniform regulatory and inspection requirements for food safety are applied to processes with similar risks to human health.

A new Canadian Food Inspection System has been proposed
13.81 Inspections of food-processing establishments are conducted by both the federal and provincial governments, under their respective jurisdictions and statutes. The 1986 government directive sought better federal-provincial co-ordination and the establishment of uniform health and safety standards for the food-processing industry across the country whether inspections were conducted by the federal or the provincial government. It proposed consultation with the provinces to encourage them to adopt federal food safety standards. The government also instructed the federal departments to ensure coverage of, and accountability for, establishments that were not registered.

13.82 Health Canada has negotiated agreements with the provinces to improve co-operation in areas where the federal and provincial jurisdictions overlap. The agreements set out a uniform code of hygiene for food inspection activities, establish procedures for dealing with food-borne illness and co-ordinate inspection activities between Health Canada's inspection program and those of the provincial governments. However, we found that the agreements have not always resulted in improved co-ordination of inspection activities in establishments that are not federally registered.

13.83 Federal-provincial committees were established to improve co-ordination. Health Canada formed the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Food Safety to co-ordinate inspection activities, standards and the control of problems in the food supply. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada established a parallel committee in 1990, the Federal/Provincial Agri-Food Inspection Committee, to eliminate interprovincial trade barriers and to encourage provinces to adopt consistent regulations for agricultural products.

13.84 Health Canada has been developing common inspection standards for health and safety with the provinces for three years. In 1992, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada introduced a project to reduce the overlap of inspection by federal and provincial-municipal agencies through work-sharing agreements and improved co-ordination. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has so far signed agreements with two provinces to co-ordinate their fish inspection activities.

13.85 There are a number of agreements between federal and provincial inspection agencies, but no common federal-provincial health and safety standards for inspection exist. Although progress has been made in addressing inspection duplication and overlap in fish and dairy plants, much remains to be done. Federal and provincial safety standards for meat slaughter, for example, continue to differ. The current proposal to establish a "Canadian Food Inspection System" recognizes the need for a more integrated national system of food inspection.

13.86 In July 1993, the ministers of agriculture endorsed the proposal by the Federal/Provincial Agri-Food Inspection Committee to develop a national food inspection policy. The ministers also asked the federal and provincial ministers of health for their participation and commitment. The result was that members of the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Food Safety, representatives from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Ontario public health inspectors were added to the steering committee.

13.87 The steering committee prepared a report for the meeting of ministers of agriculture in July 1994. The report noted that Canada's food inspection system operates in a complex jurisdictional context involving all levels of government and their regulatory organizations. Among the consequences are the duplication of inspection activities, the layering of costs and the adverse reaction of industry. The report proposes a re-engineered Canadian Food Inspection System. The benefits of such a system include the streamlining of inspection delivery and the harmonization of food safety standards across the federal and provincial governments.

Imported food is receiving increased attention
13.88 Worldwide trade in agriculture and food products is rapidly expanding. Canada's trade in these products is also expanding, with food exports valued at $11 billion and imports at $10 billion in 1993.

13.89 Rules for international trade of agricultural products, and the related safety standards that may be imposed by a country for the protection of its citizens, are contained in a number of international agreements. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade requires that countries not discriminate between domestic and imported goods in applying standards and technical regulations, or use such regulations as disguised barriers to trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement further recognizes that Canada may set the level of protection necessary for its consumers, and may even exceed international standards, provided they are based on scientific principles. Canada is encouraged to follow international practice in setting its standards, and to participate in international standardizing bodies, including the CODEX Alimentarius Commission, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The trade agreements recognize that Canada may prohibit the entry and sale of any product that does not meet Canadian safety regulations.

13.90 The safety of imported food is of concern to Canadians (see Exhibit 13.14 ). Well-publicized scares, such as the Chilean grape incident of 1989 and the more recent "hamburger disease" outbreaks in the United States, have contributed to this concern. Information compiled by Health Canada reveals that in Canada there were 139 recalls of imported food products in 1992-93, representing 63 percent of all food recalls. Given the volume of food imports involved this is not a large number, but it is proportionally much higher than the 25 percent of the value of food consumption represented by imports.

13.91 Concerns over the safety of imported food were identified in a report prepared by the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation in 1989. As a result, additional funding was approved by the Treasury Board, and import control activities were increased. For example, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada increased sampling and testing activities for imported foods and developed a foreign country assessment program for dairy, fruit and vegetable products. Health Canada implemented an importer inspection program, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada developed and implemented a computerized import-tracking system and a foreign country accreditation program. In addition, in 1992 and 1993, departments conducted enforcement checks at nine border points. The objective of the checks was to examine all food imports for compliance with Canadian standards.

13.92 Ensuring the safety of imported food presents a greater challenge to regulating agencies than food produced domestically because, in most cases, little is known about the conditions under which imported food is processed. The federal government's approach to regulating imported food is thus varied and complex. Programs include participating in and contributing to the policies and standards of the CODEX Alimentarius Commission.

Departments have not achieved the desired co-ordination of import control activities
13.93 Each department has inspection programs to control the importation and sale of food in Canada. The approaches to inspection and control of imported food differ among the departments and among the commodity groups.

13.94 In 1986, the government directed departments to improve the co-ordination of import control activities. They were to establish one federal contact for inspection of imports and the process was to be subject to periodic audit by Health Canada. Very little progress has been made in this area. Each department has continued with its own import control program, and the activities of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have not been subject to periodic audits by Health Canada. The review of food import activities by Health Canada is, however, within the scope of an audit plan recently approved by the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation.

13.95 In Canada, import control activities are directed mainly at product sampling and testing. Health Canada's agreements with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada set out its role in establishing and reviewing risks, priorities and plans for product sampling and testing. However, Health Canada has not assessed and endorsed the other departments' approaches to product sampling and testing. We also found that product sampling and testing of imported fruits and vegetables is not fully integrated between departments.

13.96 We reviewed the border inspection activities of the federal departments and found several weaknesses. Currently, for most food commodities, there is no inspection capability at ports of entry. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada plans to have officers in place by the end of 1994 to check documentation and physically verify contents at 32 major points of entry, which account for 80 percent of all food imports. Revenue Canada-Customs is required to verify import documents and notify the responsible federal department. Notification is required in cases where the shipment is not properly documented. The inspecting departments have identified cases where Revenue Canada-Customs did not make the proper referrals. We reviewed the findings of the border enforcement checks undertaken in 1992 and found that 34 percent of the shipments examined did not comply with all import requirements. Most food shipments failed because of improper documentation and labelling, while three percent represented health and safety violations. (see photograph)

13.97 Fisheries and Oceans Canada has an extensive program for the inspection of fish imports. The Department relies on the importer to notify it of incoming shipments. However, a 1991 internal audit estimated that importers failed to notify the Department 25 percent of the time. The preliminary findings of a recent follow-up audit were that, although non-notification remains a problem, the failure-to-notify rate fell to 11 percent in 1992-93. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is working to further reduce this problem.

13.98 To co-ordinate the inspection of agri-food imports, an interdepartmental working group was created in 1991. The working group proposed an action plan and outlined priorities for consideration, including the development of an integrated program of import control. After that, the working group was largely inactive. In December 1993, the Interdepartmental Sub-Committee on Food Inspection decided that the departments should meet again to discuss a more co-ordinated effort at import control. In July 1994, the working group became a sub-committee of that committee with a mandate to improve the co-ordination of import control activities.

Improved co-ordination with United States food inspection agencies could lead to better coverage of food imports
13.99 Our audit of food safety included a concurrent review, conducted jointly with the United States General Accounting Office. The Office of the Auditor General and the General Accounting Office in the past have both expressed concern about the safety of foods imported from third countries. In light of increasing food imports, federal budget constraints and recent international trade agreements calling for equivalent food safety standards, we decided to assess the sharing of information between the agencies responsible in the two countries for imported food safety (see Appendices 13.1 and 13.2).

13.100 Specifically, our objectives were to assess:

  • whether the countries are sharing, to the extent possible, information on food products that are refused entry because they have been found in violation of health and safety standards; and
  • the potential for improving controls over imported food products through collaborative certification and inspection programs and sharing of information on the results of inspections of foreign food plants.
13.101 The United States and Canada have similar systems and standards for ensuring the safety of imported food. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is the federal agency that oversees the safety of most domestic and imported food products, including seafood. The United States Department of Agriculture ensures the safety of meat and poultry products.

13.102 The United States and Canada have several arrangements to share information about rejected food shipments from third countries. Those arrangements cover mostly products found in violation of health and safety standards that are subsequently re-exported to or through the United States and Canada. However, the arrangements are informal and are not always followed by Canadian and United States food agencies. More systematic arrangements for information sharing could result in better assurance that unsafe food is not imported to our countries.

13.103 Canada and the United States share little information on the results of foreign plant inspections. As a result, with some foods -- for example, meat and canned tuna -- both countries inspect many of the same foreign plants while other foreign plants are not inspected by either country. Many of the plants not inspected are involved in high-risk processes, such as low-acid canning. Improved co-ordination between Canadian and United States food agencies could lead to better inspection coverage of food imports.

Cost Recovery

13.104 The Treasury Board's 1989 User Fee Policy requires that external users pay appropriate charges for both mandatory and optional regulatory services, including those related to health and safety, when direct economic benefits accrue to specific users and other prime beneficiaries. The Treasury Board Secretariat advised the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation in 1989 that the Treasury Board ministers were aware that regulated industries and their consumers benefited from improved marketability, lower risk and increased confidence. They recognized that appropriate charges determined in accordance with Treasury Board's guidelines need not compromise health and safety objectives or jeopardize public benefits. This guidance was provided to the Interdepartmental Committee in response to its proposal to restrict cost recovery to product grading and export certification services.

Federal food inspection costs are not recovered in accordance with Treasury Board policy
13.105 Over the last five years, there has been little recovery of inspection costs, even those not associated directly with safety objectives. Of the $226 million annual cost of federal food inspection activities, only $11 million -- related mainly to product grading and export certification services -- was recovered in 1993-94. If the Treasury Board's cost-recovery policy were applied fully, it would allow for the recovery of up to $200 million annually.

13.106 We examined and reported on inspection cost recovery at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 1988 and at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 1991. In each case, we found that cost-recovery opportunities had not been maximized. During this audit, we re-examined cost-recovery practices for all federal food inspection activities. We found the situation largely unchanged. We also found significant inconsistencies in cost-recovery practices of inspection programs across departments, and within the inspection programs of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

13.107 Our 1988 audit of Fisheries and Oceans Canada found that fees sufficient to recover direct costs had been introduced in 1985 in some parts of the import inspection program. We identified a number of additional opportunities for cost recovery in the domestic plant inspection program, and the Department planned to initiate new cost- recovery measures by 1991. In a follow-up audit that year we noted that, apart from raising import inspection fees, the Department had introduced no new cost-recovery measures. Our current findings show no change.

13.108 Our 1991 audit of cost-recovery practices at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada revealed that the Department did not have a comprehensive, department-wide system for management of non-tax revenue. A recent study identified the costs of inspection activities that fall within the federal cost-recovery policy to be $60 million annually. The amounts involved are large, as are the potential savings to the government. Individual departments have reviewed their cost-recovery practices and some plans to increase the level of recovery are being developed. All departments must determine which inspection activities are subject to cost recovery and then ensure that the recovery practice is applied consistently across the system.

Reporting to Parliament on Food Safety Activities and Results

13.109 For the period 1989-90 to 1994-95, we reviewed the Estimates Part III of all the departments involved in the management of the federal food safety system. We expected to find information on food safety activities in all of the documents, including information on performance and results achieved. And, given Health Canada's primacy role, we expected that its Part III would be the one to provide a comprehensive overview of the system.

13.110 The 1986 government directive mandated the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation to evaluate the effects of changes proposed by the government. The Food Inspection Sub-Committee of the Interdepartmental Committee also was required to "develop schedules for regular program review and evaluation to identify emerging trends and issues and to facilitate individual planning in each of the respective departments."

13.111 The new Treasury Board Manual on Review, Audit and Evaluation states, "It is government policy that departments conduct evaluations, audits and other reviews to assess the performance of their policies, programs and operations." The Review Policy Guidelines put a particular emphasis on the need to conduct multidepartment reviews of a policy or a program that is managed by several departments and that could involve other levels of government, in particular the provinces (as is the case with the Canadian food safety system).

13.112 In short, the departments and the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation are individually and collectively responsible for ensuring that the federal food safety system is evaluated periodically and that the findings are reported to Parliament.

Information in the Estimates Part III is incomplete
13.113 We found that the Estimates Part III for Health Canada did not describe the federal food safety system. For example, the objectives of the system were not presented and, although the major departments involved were named, there was no explanation of their individual roles. Nor did Health Canada's Part III provide a summary of the resources required and used by the food safety system overall. In the other departments, we found that Part IIIs provided information on their food safety activities, and occasionally made reference to the food safety initiatives of other departments.

13.114 We concluded that the Estimates Part III do not provide members of Parliament with an overall understanding of federal food safety activities and the results achieved.

13.115 We believe that the greatest deficiency relates to the lack of information on the effectiveness of the federal food safety system -- the degree to which the departments are achieving their objective of ensuring a safe food supply. There is little measurement of overall performance and reporting of results in the federal food safety system, despite the clear need for such information.

The overall effectiveness of federal food safety activities is unknown
13.116 The most recent program evaluations of the federal food safety system were conducted by the responsible departments and the findings were reported in 1987. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada and Industry Canada (then Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada) each looked at the elements of the food safety system that fell under its control.

13.117 However, those evaluations were completed before the changes brought about by the 1986 government directive and, most important, they did not address issues pertaining to the food safety system as a whole.

13.118 Eight years have passed since the departments were directed to implement changes to the federal food safety system. During that time, additional resources have been obtained and many changes have been made. However, the absence of evaluation activity means that little is known about the effectiveness of the system and its component parts, or the impact of the changes. A significant and serious gap exists in the performance information available on the program and in the accountability that can be exacted.

13.119 We conducted a search of related literature to ascertain if it would be reasonable and appropriate to examine the effects of the food safety program. We concluded that a multidepartment review can answer questions such as: Are we doing the right things? Are the programs being managed and co-ordinated in the best possible way? Would a given segment of the population be better served by a different mix of programs? We identified a number of specific effects that could be examined by such a program evaluation. Those effects are listed in Exhibit 13.15 .

13.120 Three chapters in the 1993 Report of the Auditor General stressed the importance of program evaluation findings as a necessary tool for managing results and for accountability. Without such information on food safety programs, program managers, taxpayers and Parliament cannot know whether these programs are achieving what was intended and what, if anything, has changed as a result of implementing them.

Recommendations to the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation

13.121 The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation has been responsible for planning and co-ordinating the federal food safety system since 1986. While this role is necessary for the cost-effective operation of the system, the clear separation of individual departments' responsibilities is also critical to the system's underlying model of checks and balances.

13.122 We had intended to complete and report this audit in 1992, but the Interdepartmental Committee asked for a delay so that departments could advance or complete a number of initiatives that were under way. Although progress had been slow up to that point, we found that considerable headway was made during the two-year period.

13.123 Nevertheless, there are a number of important steps that the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation must take or accelerate to ensure that the federal food safety system operates as efficiently as possible across the country, and is effective in keeping Canada's food supply safe.

An agenda for the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation
13.124 The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation should focus on completing its assigned tasks and on specifying the results that should be achieved in managing the federal food safety system. As a first step, the Interdepartmental Committee should re-examine its own role and structure to ensure that it has the authority, membership, resources and commitment necessary to carry out its ongoing responsibilities and accomplish its agenda for change.

13.125 The Interdepartmental Committee should make certain that individual departments have appropriate action planned or under way to correct deficiencies, capture economies and efficiencies, and confirm that the checks and balances on which the federal food safety system relies are in place and operating. These actions should address:

1. The need for Health Canada to independently and objectively review the food safety inspection-related activities of federal departments concerning imported and domestically produced foods for sale in Canada, and of provincial departments concerning the inspection of non-registered food-processing plants. Specific attention is required to make food safety standards and inspection approaches consistent; to eliminate gaps in inspection coverage of federally registered plants and imports; and to obtain information from the provinces on their inspection activity.

2. The identification of federal food safety inspection resources separately from those that are related to quality and trade, and the uniform allocation of these food safety resources across the system on the basis of risk to human health. This will require that health hazard risk categories and uniform levels of inspection coverage are agreed upon, and that the optimum inspection frequencies necessary to control the risk are established and met.

3. Co-ordination with United States food inspection agencies in areas of information exchange on unsafe food products from third countries and on inspection results for foreign plants. Improvements in these areas should contribute to greater efficiency and better coverage of food imports.

4. The pursuit of innovation and efficiencies in food safety activities; in particular, concerning the operation of laboratories and the regulation and audit of HACCP-based systems. This should include the co-ordination of regulatory changes and inspection initiatives so that uniform requirements are applied to industry processes and imports posing similar risks to human health.

5. The consistent and equitable application of the Treasury Board's user fee policy by all federal inspection departments to the processing and distribution sectors of the Canadian food industry.

6. The need for greater accountability in the management of the federal food safety system. Several actions should be taken:

  • report to the Treasury Board on the use of supplementary funding received since 1990-91 and the results that can be attributed to this spending. The effectiveness of the national emergency operations system should be evaluated and reported as part of this undertaking;
  • measure the effectiveness of the Canadian food safety system by conducting a program evaluation study in co-operation with the provinces, and by improving the timeliness and availability of annual data on food-borne illnesses; and
  • improve reporting to Parliament in the Estimates Part III of the federal food safety system, including a description of the system, a summary of the resources involved and information on overall performance and results. Information on the effectiveness of the food safety system, such as trend data on food-borne illnesses and program evaluation findings, should be included.
Committee's response: As the Auditor General stated in the Introduction to this chapter, Canada is recognized both at home and abroad as having a food supply that is abundant, safe, nutritious and of high quality. The significant initiatives in progress to maintain the safety of the food supply have also been acknowledged by the Auditor General. The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation welcomes the recommendations of the Auditor General on additional steps that can be taken to increase the efficiency of the federal food safety system.

The environment in which the federal food safety system functions has changed considerably since the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation was established in 1986. Budgetary constraints at all levels of government, the highly competitive international marketplace and the rapid expansion of worldwide trade in food products are among the challenges being faced. The Committee agrees with the Auditor General on the need to re-examine all aspects of its activities to ensure that the management of the food safety system and accountability to both Parliament and Treasury Board are enhanced.

The Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation undertakes to incorporate the agenda outlined by the Auditor General in this process. In particular, priority will be given to greater integration of federal and provincial inspection programs through the establishment of the ``Canadian Food Inspection System", audit of the food inspection system by Health Canada, accelerated and consistent implementation by departments of Treasury Board's User Pay Policy, and increased co-ordination of import surveillance among departments and with the United States. The Committee will also consider means to more broadly report to Parliament in the Estimates Part III. With these actions, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation is confident that Canadians can continue to be assured that the food supply is safe and nutritious and that the federal food safety system is functioning in an efficient and effective manner.

Appendix 13.1—Federal Management of the Food Safety System

Concurrent Review of Third-Country Food Imports

Purpose

Canada and the United States import a significant portion of their food supply. In addition to their reciprocal trade in food products, each imports an increasing quantity of food from third countries.

Both countries share a common approach to controlling imported food, through similar food safety standards and import inspection programs. The two countries recently signed international trade agreements calling for equivalent food safety standards to eliminate barriers to trade and to promote fair competition.

The volume of imported food and the budget constraints faced by the agencies responsible for controlling imported foods present a challenge to federal agencies in both countries. For this reason, and because of the potential health risks posed by imported foods and the importance of monitoring these risks, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada and the United States General Accounting Office undertook concurrent reviews of the food import control programs of Canadian and United States agencies.

The objectives of these reviews were to assess:

  • whether the countries are sharing, to the extent possible, information on food products that are refused entry because they have been found in violation of health and safety standards; and
  • the potential for improving controls over imported food products through collaborative certification and inspection programs and the sharing of information on the results of inspections of foreign food plants.

Results in Brief

Canada and the United States have several arrangements to share information about imported food products found to be in violation of health and safety standards. These arrangements cover imported food shipments from third countries that are being re-exported to or through the United States and Canada. The arrangements, however, are primarily informal and are seldom nation-wide in scope. More comprehensive and systematic information-sharing arrangements between Canadian and United States agencies could result in increased assurance concerning the safety of food imported to Canada.

Canada and the United States share little information on the results of foreign plant inspections. In the cases of meat, shrimp and tuna, both countries inspect many of the same foreign plants while other foreign plants are not regularly inspected by either country. Improved sharing of information between Canadian and United States food agencies could lead to greater efficiency and better inspection coverage of food imports.

Background

Three Canadian and two United States federal agencies have direct responsibility for monitoring the compliance of food imports with federal safety requirements. These agencies exchange information on inspections that disclose violations of trade and safety standards (see Exhibit App. 13.1 ).

Health Canada establishes standards for food safety in Canada and has overall responsibility for ensuring that all food sold in Canada meets health and safety standards. Its inspection activities include inspecting importers' facilities and product sampling and testing of imported commodities. Inspection responsibility is shared with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is responsible for the inspection of meat and poultry, eggs and egg products, dairy, fruit and vegetable products. It controls imports through product sampling and testing at ports of entry and inspecting importer facilities and foreign meat plant operations. Similarly, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is responsible for the inspection of fish products; it also has a product sampling and testing program and inspects shrimp- and tuna-processing establishments overseas.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services is the federal agency responsible for overseeing the safety of most domestic and imported food products, including seafood. The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products. Both agencies have foreign plant inspection programs.

When a third country requests approval of its meat inspection system, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada reviews all relevant legislation and related technical information on that country. If the country has legislation equivalent to Canada's, a visit is made to the country to study the actual implementation of the legislation in food-processing establishments. Based on satisfactory findings during the visit, establishments wishing to export to Canada are approved.

Very similar programs exist in the United States. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture inspects all foreign meat and poultry processing plants exporting to the United States, and the United States Food and Drug Administration inspects facilities that process low-acid canned food and seafood.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada currently covers low-acid canned meat products under its foreign meat hygiene program. It is developing a foreign country assessment program to also review the inspection systems of countries exporting dairy, fruit and vegetable products that may include the inspection of establishments exporting low-acid canned food into Canada.

Principal Findings

Canadian and United States food inspection agencies share information to prevent unsafe food from entering either country
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the United States Department of Agriculture have agreed to exchange information on meat and poultry shipments from third countries that were refused entry and are being re-exported to or through the United States and Canada. The purpose of this information exchange is to control the refused shipments in transit. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada does not have a similar arrangement covering other food products.

In 1993, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada refused entry for health and safety reasons to 17 meat and poultry shipments from third countries that were then re-exported through the United States to the country of origin. However, we found that the United States Department of Agriculture was notified in only 8 of the 17 cases. The United States General Accounting Office followed up these cases with the United States Department of Agriculture and the results are presented in the General Accounting Office report.

In the same year, Canada was notified by the United States Department of Agriculture of two rejected meat shipments that were re-exported from the United States through Canada to the country of origin. We found that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada took appropriate action on the two cases.

We also examined the results of arrangements between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration. While there is no agreement between the two agencies at the headquarters level, we found that some regional offices do share information on rejected shipments. For example, since the fall of 1993, Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific region has had direct access to the import control system of the United States Food and Drug Administration's West Coast region. Also, in February 1994 the United States Food and Drug Administration's Northeastern region and Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Central and Arctic region finalized an arrangement of information exchange and notification procedures for rejected fish products.

We followed up on two 1993 cases in which the United States Food and Drug Administration's West Coast region notified Fisheries and Oceans Canada of shipments rejected for health and safety reasons, which were re-exported through Canada. In both cases, Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific region monitored the shipments appropriately. While information sharing is taking place at the regional level and is generally effective, there is no nation-wide system in place. We were therefore unable to determine the total number of rejected shipments that were re-exported from the United States through Canada to the country of origin.

We also noted that Fisheries and Oceans Canada's inspection manual instructs officers to inform the United States Food and Drug Administration of products being shipped to the United States after having been rejected in Canada for health and safety reasons. In 1993, Fisheries and Oceans Canada notified the United States Food and Drug Administration of 17 of 20 such rejected shipments that were re-exported to or through the United States. Again, the results of the United States General Accounting Office's follow-up are found in its report.

Health Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration may share information on a regional basis about rejected shipments from third countries. However, there is no record kept of the cases referred between the agencies. Another arrangement between headquarters groups in Washington and Ottawa covers potential food-related public health emergencies of reciprocal concern to each country. Health Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration are formalizing these bilateral relations; draft letters of agreement were exchanged between the agencies in February 1994.

We concluded that most arrangements for information exchange between the Canadian and United States food agencies are informal and not comprehensive. More comprehensive and systematic arrangements could lead to greater assurance that unsafe food is not entering the commerce of either country.

Canadian and United States agencies inspect many of the same foreign food- processing plants
For certain commodity groups, Canadian and United States food agencies inspect foreign food processors to ensure that they have inspection systems, procedures and practices that are comparable to domestic systems and that meet domestic health and safety standards. Each country has major programs covering meat and fish products and the United States also covers other commodities to a lesser extent.

In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture reported on a review of the Canadian meat inspection system. It concluded that the Canadian inspection system is equivalent to the United States inspection system. The report also indicated that, like the United States, Canada has a certification program to ensure that a foreign country's inspection system complies with certain requirements before that country can export meat to Canada. Neither country will accept meat products from a country that it has not certified as eligible to export the product.

Given the similarities between the two systems and the overlap in inspection activity, there is potential for improving the coverage of foreign meat-processing establishments through increased sharing of inspection results by Canadian and United States agencies. Such information would enhance their knowledge of foreign food plants and focus attention on establishments with known violations.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's program for foreign meat processors covers 31 countries -- 633 establishments -- eligible to export to Canada (see Exhibit App. 13.2 ). The frequency of on-site reviews of foreign establishments is determined by the plant size, the nature and complexity of its operations, volume of exports and record of import inspection findings. On average, the establishments are inspected every three to five years.

Over the last three years, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's inspectors visited 12 countries and carried out inspections of 124 food-processing establishments. The average direct cost per inspection was $1,000. Over the same period, the United States Department of Agriculture inspected 102 of the 124 plants inspected by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The United States Department of Agriculture also inspected 356 of the 560 approved establishments eligible to export to Canada that were not inspected by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada over the three years.

At present, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the United States Department of Agriculture share little information on the results of foreign plant inspections. The United States Department of Agriculture publishes an annual list of certified foreign plants, which is available to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The list also includes plants decertified during the year but does not indicate whether a plant has ceased export operations to the United States or failed inspection. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada also compiles this information but does not publish a list or share the information with the United States Department of Agriculture.

In 1988, Fisheries and Oceans Canada implemented a program for certifying offshore shrimp- and tuna-processing establishments. The objectives were to increase confidence in the safety of imported fish products and to minimize the need for extensive sampling in Canada. To this end, memoranda of understanding were reached with three countries: Thailand, Japan and the Philippines.

Under these three agreements a foreign plant may be granted "preferred status" if it adheres to Canadian health and safety standards; it will then be subject to less product sampling and testing in Canada. Processors who wish to obtain this status are inspected by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Over the last three years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada inspected 15 such establishments overseas. In 1992-1993, establishments with preferred status processed 70 percent of Canadian canned tuna imports.

Unlike Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, each with a mandate to facilitate international trade, Health Canada does not inspect foreign processing plants. Health Canada's mandate, drawn from the Food and Drugs Act , relates to public health and applies to food, either produced domestically or imported, that is presented for sale in Canada.

The foreign inspection program of the United States Food and Drug Administration is more extensive than the Canadian foreign inspection program. It includes, for example, a program for inspecting low-acid canneries processing fruits and vegetables, in addition to fish. In 1993, the United States Food and Drug Administration inspected 52 establishments processing these low-acid canned foods.

We compared the list of establishments inspected by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration over the past three years. Of the 15 plants inspected by Canada, five were also inspected by the United States Food and Drug Administration. In addition, for the same period, the United States Food and Drug Administration inspected 132 seafood plants, many of which also export products to Canada.

We concluded that Canadian and United States agencies share little information on the results of foreign plant inspections. Given the limited resources to conduct foreign plant inspections, increased exchange of information between Canada and the United States could lead to better coverage of offshore establishments.

Recommendations
Subject to any limitations imposed by Canadian and United States statutes, the Interdepartmental Committee on Food Regulation could contribute to greater efficiency and better coverage of food imports by directing federal departments to:

  • establish more comprehensive and systematic arrangements for sharing information between Canadian and United States food inspection agencies on unsafe food products from third countries; and
  • improve sharing of information between Canadian and United States agencies on the results of foreign plant inspections, and improve co-ordination of foreign plant inspection efforts.

Appendix 13.2—Letter from the Comptroller General of the United States

(see letter)