Transparency and accountability are key to food safety

Sylvain Charlebois, University of Regina
Tags: manufacturing

Is our food safety system broken? It is more accurate to say that it has not yet been built.

In the lag between awareness of a food safety problem and identification of its source, history is once again repeating itself, with harmful consequences for Canadian consumers and their food industry. Soon after Toronto-based Siena Foods recalled five meat products recently, health officials confirmed that none of the reported five deaths were connected with the recall.  

But further economic damage already occurred via a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer of the tainted products. Similarly, we witnessed another case of delayed identification during the mad cow crisis of 2003, when it took inspectors four months to trace the diseased animal to its original herd. More recently, in 2008, Ontario Health officials diagnosed people infected with listerioris two months before the outbreak was linked to the Maple Leaf plant in the Toronto area.

Public anxiety
The deaths of 22 Canadians in these crises are tragic enough; yet we must also contend with widespread public anxiety in the wake of these outbreaks. We are clearly unable to adequately track and monitor risks in the food industry.

What we have now are post hoc arrangements among competing stakeholders, consumers who often lack basic information and regulatory bodies, particularly the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which must somehow instill collaboration and trust among all parties. The results, in the event of a food crisis, have been disorganization, inefficiency and uncertainty.

Our current practices must become more organized, but there are contrasting views about how to best shape our food safety systems. Some groups, often led by public spokespersons, are calling for more food safety inspectors. The CFIA, on the other hand, claims its inspectors are sufficiently deployed and that the frequency of inspections is adequate.

In fact, the CFIA already employs more than 5,000 employees and 200 inspectors. More inspectors in the field will not necessarily translate into more direct testing of food products. More likely, it would mean that companies must contend with more bureaucracy. It simply does not follow that hiring more inspectors will make our food safer.

Instead, our objective should be a comprehensive food traceability system, a task which demands high organizational flexibility from the entire food industry. The endeavor is worthwhile, even though implementation will be challenging. Unfortunately, regulators are hampered by a competitive environment in which consensus building is difficult and even basic infrastructural agreements among stakeholders may be lacking. Additionally, with forced cooperation in the food industry having failed in the past, it is necessary to promote a willingness to cooperate and to foster a supply chain-oriented paradigm.

Food traceability systems can achieve this integration, and the CFIA is the perfect forum in which to build such highly needed cooperation. The CFIA, despite previous difficulties, must redouble its efforts to rally the food industry before and after food safety crises.

But building better food safety systems requires more than industry collaboration. It also should address the lack of transparency displayed by both regulators and industry.

In all of our recent food crises, harm to consumer perception was aggravated by a lack of transparency in food industry organizations. Since consumer perception of food hygiene and safety are some of the key drivers of food safety policy, it is vital that consumers understand more fully how the food industry operates and is regulated.

The CFIA must become a better risk communicator. In the absence of a mandatory disclosure system, the public is currently unable to obtain information about food safety records and scorecards generated by inspections. This has to change as it raises questions about the robustness of the regulatory process. Consumers deserve to be better educated about food safety matters, and once educated they will repay the food industry with trust.

Chasing the wrong targets
The debate should not be about the number of inspectors hired by the CFIA, because it is much too simplistic for the food industry’s segmented realities. For years, we have been chasing the wrong targets because we have not been able unwilling to spur cooperation and accountability in a competitive food industry. In its responses to food safety crises, the food industry would benefit from statutory regulations that require traceability from farm to plate.

Further, consumer confidence would be bolstered by implementing non-regulatory quality assurance programs. These approaches emphasize traceability, transparency, and accountability within food production, and have previously acted as catalysts for more collaborative behavior. More collaboration within the food industry, especially between regulators and industry, could make an extensive difference to Canadians’ physical and mental well-being.

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About the Author

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is an associate professor at the University of Regina, and authored this column for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.