An employee handles food at a meat facility in Toronto. The federal government announced Thursday it is streamlining the food inspection system in Canada. (Canadian Press)

The federal government introduced a bill Thursday that will overhaul Canada's food inspection system and toughen penalties for those who try to tamper with it.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said current laws are outdated and that the Safe Food for Canadians Act will modernize and streamline existing food safety rules and inspection systems.

The bill, introduced in the Senate, consolidates four existing pieces of legislation — the  Fish Inspection Act, the Canada Agricultural Products Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the food provisions of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.

Currently, food safety inspectors carry out their work in different ways depending on whether they are inspecting meat, fish or agricultural products. Ritz said the new system will make operations more consistent.

Ritz said food inspectors need more effective tools and that the new bill will give them greater authority, for example in requiring documents to be produced. 

"Clear, consistent rules for inspectors and industry overall will ultimately make food safer for all Canadians," Ritz said at a news conference held at an Ottawa grocery store.

The bill proposes tougher fines and penalties, and creates new offences related to "recklessly endangering" lives. Anyone convicted of tampering with food products, or even pretending to, could face a new maximum fine of $5 million once the bill becomes law. The current maximum fine is $250,000.

Ritz said the bill has been several years in the making and that it will also strengthen the government's ability to track and recall food products, and to deal with food imports.

New tracing system proposed

A full traceability system will allow for better tracking "from farm to fork," said Ritz.

The bill also seeks to change the way industry can appeal decisions by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on product seizures, for example. The bill writes the complaints process into law and if a company is unhappy with a decision it could seek a judicial review from a Federal Court.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was also at the announcement and said amendments to the Food and Drug Act contained in the bill will allow for more timely approvals of safe products.

Senator Donald Plett, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said it was introduced in his chamber because the House of Commons has a "full load" and is having trouble moving legislation because of the opposition parties.

He said debate on the bill will begin on Tuesday.

Food safety specialist Susan Abel told the CBC Radio's Susan Lunn that having one set of inspection regulations, and one piece of governing legislation, will mean less duplication. Abel, who works with Food and Consumer Products of Canada, the national industry association representing the food and consumer products industry, said she hopes the new system will also include more controls for less regulated sectors, such as baked goods.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen wants to make sure the Canadian food inspection agency is still doing inspections.

"Checking the boxes off and signing the paper on the bottom saying everything is wonderful — we witnessed that once before, and 22 people died," he said, referring to the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, when 22 people died after eating contaminated cold cuts.

Some of the changes being proposed now stem from the government's investigation into those deaths, Lunn reported. That final report made 57 recommendations to make sure problems with food safety don't happen again.

Ritz said Thursday that all of those recommendations have now been implemented.

With files from CBC's Susan Lunn in Ottawa