2020 — A year to remember or forget? – The latest ‘Food in Canada’ food safety column by Ron Wasik
“Without exception, 2020 has been a turbulent year for everyone,” states Dr. Ron Wasik, president of RJW Consulting Canada in his latest ‘Food in Canada’ food safety column. “There have been many changes at all levels in our industry. We have gone from working shoulder-to-shoulder to mandating PPE, social distancing and installing panels to separate employees. The word “pivot” has entered our day-to-day management conversations and it has taken on a real sense of urgency in our fight to survive. Strictly from a food safety point of view, much has also happened this year.”
Food safety and COVID-19
Concerns about whether the virus was being transmitted to people via foods emerged early in the pandemic. In time, the concern that foods transmitted the virus have virtually disappeared. However, this concern placed tremendous challenges upon our industry. Businesses with strong food safety cultures, validated food safety programs with well-articulated GMPs, SOPs and SSOP’s fared much better than those with poor programs. That’s because strong food safety cultures and strong food safety programs provided essentially all the critical safeguards to control infectious agents including viruses. Strong food safety cultures and programs also made pivoting easier. For example, these programs accelerated new product development, approving new suppliers and supplying new customers. These programs also improved worker compliance to staying safe at work and at home.
Safe Food for Canadians regulations and enforcement
Just as our industry, Health Canada and the CFIA were getting up to speed on the Safe Foods for Canadians regulations, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and each sector pivoted to address a “new reality.” Because our industry was deemed essential, it received considerable support from both provincial and federal governments and their agri-food affiliated agencies. Throughout this year I have participated on a number of calls to hear updates on the current state of the SFCRs and enforcement of the same.
The CFIA moved quickly to protect its inspectors from contracting the virus at work, a move that also protected food processors from inspectors from spreading the virus around to the plants they oversaw. The frequency of inspections was reduced significantly and the inspection focus was shifted to oversee processors deemed to be of higher risk. A practice of “virtual inspections” also began on a small scale.
In 2020 many importers were required to have a license and to comply with the SFCRs just like any Canadian food processor that sold products across provincial boundaries. On one of the recent calls I was on, it was reported that as of this autumn, the CFIA had issued close to 13,000 licenses. This is 2,000 licenses short of what the CFIA estimated it would have at this time. Given that I have never seen a reliable estimate of the number of food processors and importers in Canada in my 40 years in this industry, I won’t comment on the level of agri-food industry compliance with the SFCR licensing program. However, I will say that CFIA is grossly understaffed to be able to oversee 13,000 establishments, especially in our current pandemic environment. How does that make you feel? Food processors also need to be aware that they must renew their licenses in January 2021, which will be two years since the SFCRs came into effect.
There have also been a number of other regulatory “adjustments” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One such adjustment included permitting food products labelled and destined for the food service industry, which was devastated by closures, to be sold to retail establishments where food product stocks were being rapidly depleted by panicking consumers. Incidentally, this arrangement ends on December 31, 2020 but may be extended on an as-needed basis. Other adjustments included delaying implementing food labelling modernization measures as wells as embarking on “Phase III” of the SFCRs.
Another significant issue that arose was the self-sustainability of Canada’s food supply, given our reliance on importing foods and food ingredients. The provinces suggested that their “provincially-licensed establishments” currently permitted to sell only within their own province be allowed to sell across provincial borders. To the best of my knowledge, this was never done on a large scale because provincial regulations vary widely province to province and the caliber of inspection and compliance can leave a lot to be desired.
Food processors and regulators should look on 2020 as a year to remember as the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us to pivot and be patient with one another. Here is wishing for an end to COVID-19 in 2021. Keep safe!
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik, PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org