The CFIA and Canadian food labelling
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) modernization efforts have recently embraced the iconic Cheers lyrics, “Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.”
In January 2015, the CFIA announced it would be taking a break before the introduction of the much anticipated Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) that was expected to be introduced in the first half of 2015. It seems there is a bit more thought and further reorganization needed by the agency to ready itself for that eventuality. Fair enough. The changes coming will have a significant reach in, and impact on, food businesses in Canada. It will bring with it a new licensing regime and inspection system.
To lessen that pain for everyone, the CFIA itself needs to be ready. The agency is not predicting when proposed regulations will out. This is a federal election year, and as such speculation might suggest there will not be interest in doing so before then. It is easier to speak about food safety success than to demonstrate it.
The Cheer’s idea of taking a break is spending time in a pub. But the CFIA is not sitting idle. The restructuring of the agency is still happening. There are also many food regulatory modernization initiates on the menu, including food labelling. The CFIA has noted that it is still committed to presenting a draft on the future direction of food labelling by mid-2015. This is not proposed regulations, just a more focused vision.
Since its early days the CFIA was shaped by the multitude of federal food legislation – including the Canada Agricultural Products Act, the Meat Inspection Act and the Fish Inspection Act – that it had inherited from its ancestors. Each of these laws, and there are more, require administration. Administration shapes the organizational framework. The Safe Food for Canadians Act will eventually repeal these laws, and thus require a new framework. Transitional changes are already happening.
Much of the talk by the CFIA on food regulatory modernization is centred around prevention of food safety issues. That of course is an easy sell, and it has good political capital that is easy for the general public to relate to. Food labelling and advertising seems to have taken a back seat to other CFIA and federal government priorities. What seems to be lost in the discussion is the decades of openness by the CFIA and its predecessors to engage in food labelling dialogue. If it is the agency’s goal to have consistency and a level playing field related to food labelling, then such dialogue is crucial.
Preventing food label failures is a harder concept to appreciate. It should come as no surprise that most want to comply. Food labelling today, however, is technically challenging and exceptionally complex. It really takes very little effort not to get it right. When the CFIA consolidated some of its food labelling guidelines and policies in 2014 on its website, there was a sense that the job for the CFIA on food labelling guidance was done. However, the guidance is a starting point and does not encompass all food labelling. It often needs explaining on how this might relate to various scenarios. Food policy and guidance needs a voice, not just a webpage.
The current process of contacting the CFIA starts at a local CFIA office or the establishment inspector. It would seem more logical to have maintained and enhanced a more central approach, a system dedicated to answering questions and gaining the understanding of the issues that industry may seem to have particular difficulty with. The agency had proposed opening an office of food labelling expertise as part of its modernization effort. Suspicion is that this may serve internal purposes. Even if so, it would at least provide a focal point for questions to be directed to.
If the CFIA’s customers get so frustrated such that they will abandon being an audience, there will be no one left to sell their guidance to. As the song’s lyrics go, “Where everybody knows your name” will then be a thing of the past. The priority on food labelling needs to be in the limelight.