Harmonization of Canada-US food standards scarier than scandal
Date: Saturday, April 23 2005
Even though I have been sharing information I have gathered about GMOs and food inspection in Canada with my family and friends for years, one of them just recently saw a documentary on that subject and was excited to actually have seen that information for herself through the TV media. It made me realize how much she ENJOYED being informed. Is she an oddity, or have people forgotten how powerful and energized they feel when they have information that can help them make decisions they would otherwise not be able to make? And then I think of what our media feeds people.
[fair use only]
Toronto Star, Apr.23,2005
We are fixated on the drama of Paul Martin's Liberals. Can the Prime Minister last until December? Or will he be toppled next month?
Are there new revelations in store from the Gomery inquiry? If so, will they be explosive or merely incendiary?
Could Conservative Leader Stephen Harper really become prime minister?
All of these are interesting questions; some are important. But what we forget is that the federal government is more than elections.
We forget that federal politicians and bureaucrats are — even now — quietly writing laws that will have far more impact on our lives than Justice John Gomery's final report.
One of these is Bill C-27, the Canadian Food Inspection Act. It has received almost no attention in the media. Yet, it proposes to radically change the way in which foodstuffs are regulated in this country.
This bill would give bureaucrats at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency power to bypass domestic health regulators and permit the import of food approved by other countries.
The idea, apparently, is to boost cross-border trade with the United States by bringing Canadian food regulations in line with Washington's. But as National Farmers Union executive-secretary Terry Pugh told a Commons committee earlier this month, Canadian regulations — currently administered by the federal health department — are far stricter in many areas than those of the U.S.
For example, Health Canada does not allow dairy cows to be fed a bovine growth hormone used in the U.S. for fear that the resultant milk could harm humans. Nor does Health Canada permit meat to be sterilized with X-rays, as the Americans do.
Yet, the quiet, bureaucratic changes envisioned in Bill C-27 could change all of that.
If, for instance, the inspection agency decided to allow irradiated U.S. hot dogs into Canada, it would be harder for Health Canada to argue that domestic producers shouldn't be allowed to do the same.
So far, the government has given C-27 the lowest of profiles, saying only that it is part of its effort to introduce "smart regulation."
Politically, this is shrewd. In 1999, the last time Ottawa tried to mess with food safety in order to promote trade, there was a public outcry. A chastened Liberal government eventually allowed that bill to die.
But the impetus never went away. Major farm groups such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, as well as agribusiness and the biotechnology industry, have long been dissatisfied with what they see as the excessive cost of Health Canada's food safety regulations.
They would prefer everything to be run by the food inspection agency, an arm of the federal agricultural department and an organization deemed, as Conservative Saskatchewan MP Gerry Ritz put it recently, more "farm-gate friendly" than Health Canada.
Yet, the National Farmers Union's Pugh says the food inspection agency operates under an impossibly contradictory mandate.
It is supposed to both protect the food supply and encourage agribusiness. When the two come into conflict, critics say, it sacrifices safety.
The 1999 bill would have explicitly given all of Health Canada's food safety duties to the inspection agency. The current bill appears to be aimed at doing much the same thing, but in a more roundabout way.
If an election is called soon, C-27 — like all government bills still in the legislative pipeline — will die. However, transcripts from the Commons agriculture committee suggest that even if this were to happen, it would rise again.
That's because rural MPs belonging to both the Liberal and Conservative parties support the gist of Bill C-27.
And so far, few other Canadians seem to know about it.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on April 23, 2005]