Food Safety in Canada – A Balancing Act? - LawNow

Food Safety in Canada – A Balancing Act?

Many of the food-related policies and the information that we rely upon as consumers have come about through the work of the Food Directorate and the CFIA.

In 1967, Pierre Trudeau famously stated that the Canadian government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. What he didn’t comment upon was whether the government had a place in our kitchens. It did – and it still does. Although most of us rarely think of the federal government when we sit down to eat a meal, the reality is that every food we consume has been touched by government regulation. And now, more than ever, the reach of that regulatory power is under debate.

The general process of food regulation begins with the Canadian Food and Drugs Act (FDA). The FDA is an Act of the Parliament of Canada that, amongst other things, governs the production, import, export, transport, and sale of food. It was first passed in 1920 and was most recently revised in 1985. It attempts to ensure that foods sold in Canada are safe, and that their ingredients are disclosed.

The FDA gives the federal Minister of Health the power to make additional regulations and polices pertaining to standards for the safety and nutritional quality of food sold in Canada (whether imported or domestic). Naturally, however, the Minister cannot complete all of this work herself/himself, so, as is the case with most governmental powers, the bulk of the work has fallen to the public service. In this case, the part of the public service in question is the Food Directorate (FD). The Food Directorate is the federal health authority responsible for establishing policies, setting standards and providing advice and information on the safety and nutritional value of food. It carries out its responsibilities under the authority of the FDA, the Food and Drug Regulations, and the Department of Health Act.

 The FDA also gives the Minister of Health the power to administer the provisions of the FDA that relate to public health, safety and nutrition. Again, however, this work has fallen to the public service. This time, to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), a science-based regulatory agency, tasked with assessing risk and enforcing all health and safety standards under the Food and Drug Regulations. The result: Canada’s food safety standards are established by Health Canada (largely through the Food Directorate), but the CFIA responsible for their enforcement.

The CFIA was created in April 1997 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act, for the purpose of combining and integrating the related inspection services of three separate federal government departments: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Health Canada. In other words, its formation consolidated the delivery of all federal food safety, animal health, and plant health regulatory programs. The CFIA is also responsible for the administration of non-health and safety regulations concerning food packaging, labeling and advertising. The responsibility for the CFIA now lies with the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food; however, the Minister of Health (or, more specifically, the Food Directorate) remains responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the CFIA’s activities related to food safety. Many of the food-related policies and the information that we rely upon as consumers have come about through the work of the Food Directorate and the CFIA. An example that many of us see on a daily basis is the standardized “Nutrition Facts” label (specifically governed by the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act and its regulations). This label was first introduced in 2003, and it became mandatory for most pre-packaged food products on December 12, 2005 (and it became mandatory for all on December 12, 2007). This label gives pertinent information not only about the calories per serving, but about 13 core nutrients (including the percentage of these nutrients’ daily recommended values). Another example involves the recalls we sometimes hear about, like the one that resulted from the listeriosis outbreak in August of 2008 (when 22 people died after consuming deli meats from a federally-regulated meat plant). Then there are the examples that most of us don’t see, ever, let alone on a daily basis. We may not directly know about these safeguards, but they are there trying to protect us. They can be seen in all of the legislation administered by the CFIA, including: the Plant Protection Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Seeds Act, the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, the Health of Animals Act, the Feeds Act, the Fish Inspection Act, and the Fertilizers Act.

So wherein lies the debate that I mentioned earlier? Well, upon a careful reading of the above, or the legislation, or even just the CFIA website, you’ll note that the CFIA has a dual role: protecting the public and assessing risk within the agri-food industry. This can be also be seen in CFIA’s statement of values, which states that the CFIA is dedicated to the “safeguarding of food, animals, and plants, which enhance the health and well-being of Canada’s people, environment and economy” and that it “works to protect Canadians from preventable health risks and provide a fair and effective food, animal and plant regulatory regime that supports competitive domestic and international markets.” In other words, although the CFIA manages food safety, it also assesses risk based not only on food-related concerns, but on concerns for economic forces. These two items are at very different ends of the spectrum, and sometimes they collide head-on.

The collision of these various concerns (food safety vs. the economics of food) has been in the news in the past few years, and there is a raging debate as to how to reach the correct balance within the current model. Consider the five following examples:

  • In 2010, after many big chains began to make fat-related claims and to provide nutrition numbers for their standard menu items, the Canadian government launched a menu verification program for coffee shops and fast-food restaurants. According to monitoring tests conducted between 2007 and 2009, fat-related claims for 14 out 33 menu items offered at fast-food restaurants understated the fat content. Under the program, the federal government could, and did, test the nutritional claims and held the restaurants accountable if they were found to have provided false information. In mid-2011, this menu verification program was cancelled.
  • In January 2007, the government proposed revising food regulations to make it clear to consumers that “whole wheat” is not necessarily “whole grain”. The difference? “Whole wheat” effectively means that about 70% of the germ is typically removed, so regular whole wheat bread can be made with flour with a significant percentage of the germ missing (and in scientific studies, it is “whole grains”, not “whole wheat” that result in a lower risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes). Now, in 2012, five years after unveiling a proposal to end this consumer confusion, Health Canada now says it has no plans to change the food-labelling rule.
  • In 2009, the federal government, after a two-year monitoring program showed that voluntary reduction targets were not working, began to plan a two-year phase-in period for regulations to limit the amounts of trans-fats in Canadian foods. Why does this matter? Trans-fats, created by pumping hydrogen into liquid oil at an elevated temperature, raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein (or “bad cholesterol”) and can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. They are added by the food industry to give products longer shelf lives. Documents obtained by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, showed that, by 2009, the government had gone so far as, amongst other things, to draft the regulations and associated press releases. On February 7, 2012, the government, indicating that that the proposed regulations would be a “burden” on the food industry, announced that it would not make the regulations and, instead, would continue to rely on voluntary reductions.
  • In December 2011, the federal government stopped testing grocery-store product labels for exaggerated nutrition claims and unproven health claims. This, despite the fact that, according to internal records released under access to information, test results from previous years showed widespread problems with such food labels. The CFIA is reported to have noted that the program was put on hold due to “budgetary constraints”. Inspectors will continue to follow up on consumer complaints.
  • As we all know, the CFIA announces recall orders. What many do not know, however, is that recalls are not necessarily always publicized. The CFIA does health-risk assessments and issues public recall notices based on the degree of danger that an item poses. This is the case in many other countries as well. The idea is that consumers would soon be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recalls, many of which would pose low risk (and might not yet even be in stores). For example, a 2009 study found that of 49 recalls related to bottled water, only 7 were made public.

As these examples demonstrate, food safety is quite the balancing act. There are laws, but how effective can these laws be if they are not enforced? Budgets are tight and belts must be tightened, but how much regulation is really too much? And how much is too little? Consumers may not want to be constantly alarmed, but the argument of “little risk” is arguably cold comfort to the few who are ultimately affected (especially if there is a death). For example, consumers with allergies or with Celiac Disease now, more than ever, cannot rely on labels. How much of a “burden” is too much for the companies profiting from the food business? How can Canadians make informed choices, if they are not informed?

These are all very difficult questions, and ones to which no clear answers are readily apparent. The roles of Health Canada and the CFIA are ever-evolving – they continue to revolve around globalization, societal changes and the advances of science and technology. No easy task – and not one for the faint of heart. Bedroom, shmedroom – the heat’s in the kitchen!



  1. […] “Food Safety in Canada – A Balancing Act?” looks at which laws govern food safety, the role of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the complexities of the balance between protecting consumers and protecting economic interests. […]


Carole Aippersbach
Carole Aippersbach is a lawyer with the Centre for Public Legal Education in Edmonton, Alberta.

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