Have Canadian consumers noticed Canadian food inspection officials have been given a deadline to tighten up their food inspection practices (Globe and Mail, March 1, 2016, “Canadian agency given hard deadline by U.S. body to clean up food safety”)
Maybe. Hopefully the story goes viral on the Internet, because the readership of newspapers these days is sadly in decline.
Should Canadian consumers be concerned about the line in the sand drawn by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning Canada’s meat, poultry and egg inspection systems?
Does this mean Canadian consumers face a serious, immediate risk today when they go to shop at the market?
Probably not. But Canadian consumers do sometimes unknowingly live at the margins of safety, and, as importantly, are deprived of obtaining value for money every day by what they don’t know.
They do face a food safety risk. They risk losing Canadian product choices, given that Canadian food producers must export to survive. In fact, in a global marketplace for food, the inability to seamlessly trade is detrimental to the security and availability, even, of domestic food supply.
Canadian consumers need to understand that both U.S. and Canadian food inspection authorities must maintain a high bar of safety for products to trade internationally.
The food affordability everyone values depends in many instances on food production operating at global-class economies of scale the Canadian market alone may not support.
Don’t think there are not U.S. products held up for entry to Canada. There are.
Don’t think U.S. authorities would draw a line in the sand lightly. U.S. economic interests are affected, too, when news hits the news media casting a pall over the food trade.
Both governments challenge each other to do better with food safety measures, and they should.
However, there are specific concerns Canadian consumers should have today.
Canada’s system of food safety has been undergoing a sea-change in approach to oversight and enforcement. And the voice of Canadian consumers in that process, through organized, institutionally capable representation, is weak. Canadian consumers think consumer groups have resources to act for them, which they simply do not. Canadian public policy has neglected this problem.
Industry and the objectives of governments, whether defined by special interests, ideology, fiscal or bottom-line objectives, or unintended sloth, permeate the food safety system.
Consumers should consider how little has been done by business and government to ensure consumers can make their own informed decisions about food purchases. If action is thwarted to make improvements of services to consumers that are easily visible, just imagine the risk that consumer needs related to less visible matters will go unmet.
Immediate, visible food safety problems that effect business profitability or public attitudes get priority attention, but a complex system like the food safety system should not be managed this way. And this default approach will not serve consumers or the health of the marketplace well.
The new direction for food regulation in Canada is built around moving more of the costs and responsibilities for food safety to industry. Yay!
Industry should be motivated to improve its performance and its cost structure to achieve that performance.
Canadian regulators are supposed to set the expectations, industry is supposed to demonstrate it has taken reasonable steps to meet those expectations, and the attendant risks (defined mostly in economic terms) are left to industry.
So, if industry doesn’t measure up, what can happen? They may find a line in the sand drawn by a close trading partner that denies it access to a significant market. Or they may find themselves penalized in some way for offences against consumers, where there is identified harm.
But what about unidentified harm or hidden ‘situations’? And just because industry has been given responsibility, why should it only be held accountable at virtually the end of the process of delivering to consumers and not throughout the process? What about avoiding harm?
Answering those questions requires oversight guided by risk assessment, and risk models to do that assessment.
Today, CFIA’s evolving regulatory system has a ‘black box’ for a risk assessment model.
Yes, there is an esteemed panel of experts involved with the care and feeding of the model. But there is no consumer group oversight. We’ve never seen it well-explained.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Consumer Association Roundtable, which provided a meagre level of consumer input into the decision-making at the agency has fallen by the wayside after a promising start. Every time the door revolved in the management offices of CFIA in recent years the commitment to consumer representation by the agency’s management seemed to diminish a bit, until now it is nothing.
Even though the Council has participated in the roundtable, our organization learned of the USDA’s disturbing new line in the sand from a news report, not the CFIA.
At this writing, the Globe and Mail’s article has been public for a day, and our organization has resorted to making an entreaty for clarifying information. Not even a polite acknowledgement of that request has been received.
This is despite the fact our organization has shown a strong interest in food trade and safety issues, even participating in a recent teleconference by the Regulatory Cooperation Council, the Canada-U.S. initiative to bring “harmony” to Canada-U.S. trade. Ironically that call was the same day CFIA reportedly received the news of the USDA’s position.
Not a hint about the prospect of this disagreement was proffered on that call. In fairness, it wasn’t the U.S. government’s responsibility to bear this news.
Maybe Canadian officials were too flummoxed to speak?
Well, it has been a month and a half since CFIA reportedly got the news from the USDA and they have yet to inform consumer groups about it.
It would be easy to hang CFIA for its loss of voice. But the truth is that other consumer protection regulators have fallen silent or become passive. CFIA, like other federal and provincial regulators, sits at the centre of a “complaints-based” system, in which industry interests are commonly the most frequent complainants.
CFIA and other regulators are “doing their jobs” responding to the complaints they receive. Meaningful complaints cost a lot of money to research and present. Industry is favoured to use a bit of tax-deductible margin on every consumer’s purchase to fund their interests.
This leaves poor consumer groups out of the picture. And, besides, how often do we hear the old chestnut that consumer groups come to the table in public policy discussions with too many ill-considered complaints and not enough solutions? The consumer voice that is disingenuously said to be all powerful is too frequently marginalized, in fact.
The system does not adequately provide for the representatives of consumers to regularly and consistently offer well-developed complaints or participate in solutions development, except possibly when a consumer protection problem has gone already from bad to worse.
And given that the whole system expects consumer groups to be engaged to make a wide range of consumer protection systems work, this is a huge short-coming.
So Canadian consumers should be concerned, yes, that the USDA’s position demonstrates that when it comes to an effective consumer protection regime the emperor wears no clothes.
Can you see the Canadian government standing in the buff elsewhere? Yes.
In fact you can see the Canadian and U.S. governments standing naked together holding hands.
Visit, for example, the product recalls pages of the Canadian government. The U.S. government is very good at identifying risks to consumers from products already sold. (So much for “homeland security” or Canadian security for that matter, but that’s another subject.)
Spend a little time reading and contemplating what can be deduced from these “lists of shame”:
U.S. companies importing goods and re-exporting to Canada, for example, pass along risks to Canadian consumers all the time. It’s pretty easy to conclude that meaningful opportunities for consumer redress as an outcome of these recalls is infinitesimal. And its equally easy to see that in most cases so-called “brand shaming” is not going to make this recall list very effective at creating marketplace pressure for better corporate performance.
Look for yourself. How many of the manufacturers and distributors of these products are household names you recognize? Actually, very few.
Thank goodness the recall list has put us on the road to public understanding … well, if anyone ever has the time and money to find meaning in this avalanche of bad news.
The Consumers Council of Canada does pay attention. But its ability to reach out and communicate to consumers is limited by its resources. It needs money. It needs the in-kind contributions of time and expertise by capable Canadians. It needs interested people to participate in its governance and policy-setting. And it needs to be playing its role better to make the marketplace work better without the need for only regulatory micromanagement.
It needs the governments of Canada and the provinces to get serious about supporting its role and those of other organizations like it. Effective civil society organizations matter in our economy and our system of government: just ask the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Even while operating on a shoe-string – federal spending to assist all of Canada’s consumer groups conduct research or develop as organizations has been frozen at a paltry $1.6 million or so for a generation – Council members are taking steps, to adapt to 21st Century needs for stronger, evidence-based consumer representation.
The Council now provides ways consumers can play their part in its work.
It operates a Public Interest Network to enable consumers to play a part in the research it does to support its consumer representation. Anyone interested in consumer protection should sign up.
It collects consumer complaints, to inform its advocacy. Tell us your consumer experiences.
It accepts for membership persons with the potential to donate significant time and expertise to its governance and policy development. Come help out. Let’s make something from nothing.
It is working on developing a “Consumer Agenda” for Canada that will help Canadians better identify and connect to consumer literacy, representation and redress opportunities. Watch for it. Institutions and professionals involved in consumer protection would be well-served to contact the Council and play their part in its future success.
Every Canadian has a stake in having their consumer rights represented, including to ensure that they enjoy robust food safety protections.
The Consumers Council of Canada wishes to conclude by saying it’s still waiting to hear from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency about a sad state of affairs they’ve had more than a month to think about. We like the nice and conscientious people who work there. But as representatives of consumers we appear to be low on their agenda to inform.
So, all we can say at this moment is that the Council cannot vouch for the food safety system at this time.