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Canada’s CFIA battles for food safety, plant and animal health

By Jana Manolakos

Despite the decline in fake fish, 62 percent of Canadians still worry about food fraud, a concern that has not gone unnoticed by the Canadian government.

“Tackling food fraud will not only protect consumers, but also Canadian food businesses who must compete with inauthentic products,” explained Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, underscoring the role that the CFIA plays in a vast arena that involves potentially catastrophic consequences.

The CFIA began operating in 1997 as a science-based regulatory agency, created to eliminate duplication by combining the inspection services of three federal government departments: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Health Canada. Today it continues to partner with various national and international bodies – from Public Health Canada to the FDA – in its mission to meet food safety standards and improve awareness and consumer protection.

When it opened, the CFIA was one of Ottawa’s largest bureaucracies, with 4,500 employees and a budget of $300 million. Today those numbers continue to grow, with a current staff complement of over 6,000 employees – including veterinarians, inspectors and regulator scientists, 13 diagnostic and research laboratories across Canada, and an overall budget of $820 million last year.

And by all accounts, the CFIA is kept busy. Approximately 3,000 food safety investigations occur each year, leading to an approximate annual average of 250 recall incidents.

One of the worst of these occurred in 2008. A year after opening, the CFIA was met with a nationwide listeriosis outbreak that resulted in the deaths of 22 Canadians and a massive recall of packaged and fresh meats. The costs associated with the outbreak in Canada at the time were estimated to be nearly $242 million.

The numbers are staggering. More than four million Canadians, almost one in eight people, get sick from food poisoning every year. Foodborne illnesses account for 11,600 hospitalizations and more than 200 deaths annually. Among these, allergic reactions and microbial infections rank at the top, although recalls also have been issued on occasion for adverse chemical residue and contamination by materials such as hair or glass.

According to a survey released this March by Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, despite pandemic fears, over 72 percent of Canadians remained confident in the safety of their food products.

To maintain its traction in surveillance and oversight of new food pathogens, invasive species and animal diseases that threaten Canada’s agricultural and natural resources, the government continues to support and modernize the CFIA. This past January, it invested an additional $162.6 million over the next five years and $40 million per year on an ongoing basis. The money will enable CFIA to digitize its services and help Canadian businesses overcome pandemic interruptions and global trade volatility.

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