An internal Foreign Affairs memo expressed concern that U.S. "confidence in the Canadian food safety system" could be undermined in the wake of last fall's XL Foods beef recall.
Josée De Menezes, the department's acting director of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Division, expressed that concern on Sept. 27 in a widely distributed departmental briefing note obtained under the Access to Information Act by CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Specifically, the note refers to a U.S. campaign to halt a meat pre-clearance pilot project that is part of the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border initiative announced last year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama.
The year-long pilot project was scheduled to begin in September, but CBC News has learned it has yet to get underway.
A coalition of U.S. officials from 10 facilities that inspect meat shipments at the border and food-safety advocates is lobbying Congress to scrap the initiative. In a Sept. 18 letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary, the group cited a number of reasons, including:
- Canada's "higher incidence of foodborne illness" than the U.S.
- Canada's 2008 listeria outbreak that killed at least 23 Canadians.
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Sept. 16 beef recall of meat products from the XL Foods plant, in Brooks, Alta.
The coalition's letter included photos from the inspection house at Niagara Falls, N.Y., that revealed "damaged meat shipments, visible fecal contamination and toxic chemicals that were co-mingled with meat products. These were all returned to Canada and prevented from entering U.S. commerce by the border inspection system."
For these reasons, the letter concluded, "we respectfully request that the border inspection pilot project be halted…. The current inspection system works and provides a high level of protection for U.S. consumers from tainted imported meat."
Potential impact raises concerns
The letter, and the lobby campaign behind it, was featured prominently in the heavily redacted briefing note from Foreign Affairs, which concludes, "Their charges could undermine confidence in the Canadian food safety system writ large, potentially among some actors directly responsible for a range of policies with significant economic impact on the Canadian agricultural sector."
The briefing note goes on to say, "CFIA has been busy dealing with the recent recall of beef products due to E. coli, no media lines are yet available on the issue."
Foreign Affairs declined comment and referred media requests to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
In an interview with Power & Politics, Paul Mayers, the agency's associate vice-president of programs, concedes the briefing note expresses legitimate concerns. However, Mayers said he's not worried.
"I have not seen any research that there's a lowering of confidence in terms of U.S. consumers regarding Canadian meat products. But that doesn't mean that there aren't particular interest groups in the U.S. who have concerns.... Nonetheless, it's quite understandable why our colleagues at[Foreign Affairs] would be interested in how Canada-U.S. interactions are perceived and how that perception might impact on Canada-U.S. trade."
Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch's food campaign, said the Sept. 18 letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary, which his group helped write, speaks for itself.
"I'm not trying to indict Canadian meat as being less safe than U.S. meat," Corbo told CBC News. "But the fact of the matter is we have photographs indicating there was visible fecal contamination on meat products coming into the United States that were inspected at these border inspection stations. And we don't understand why there is an attempt to de-regulate a system that is actually working."
Pilot project delayed by U.S. review
The CFIA's Paul Mayers said his agency is ready to go ahead with the pre-clearance initiative pilot project and is waiting on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). In an email to CBC News, an FSIS spokesman said the U.S. agency is reviewing procedures before the pilot project can commence.
"For example, FSIS will diligently evaluate the results of our recent audit of the Canadian meat, poultry, and egg product food safety system before instituting the pilot and we will factor the results of this audit in deciding the final content of the pilot," the spokesman said.
Neither FSIS nor the CFIA will give a timeline for the year-long pilot project, other than to suggest that it should begin sometime this year. Mayers said that delay has nothing to do with the fallout from the XL Foods meat recall. Meat from that facility is once again crossing the border.
CFIA and FSIS describe the pilot project as nothing more than a simple initiative that will "consider alternative methods for reviewing import documents prior to the shipments arriving at the U.S. border and alternative methods for release of shipments that are destined for further processing" in the United States.
Under the project, a "small number" of Canadian beef and pork establishments (the CFIA's official name for slaughterhouses and processing facilities) will take part.
Right now, all meat shipments must stop at one of 10 U.S. import inspection houses along the border. The inspection houses are privately owned, but staffed by FSIS inspectors who check the shipment's documents, examine the meat's general condition and conduct more detailed inspections on a randomly selected 10 per cent of the shipment. It is this microbiological testing at the import inspection station in Sweetgrass, Mont., that discovered the E. coli 0157:H7 contamination of meat from XL Foods.
The Canadian Meat Council is one of several groups that have been pushing for the pilot project to cut delays at the border.
"The pilot project itself only talks about getting the re-sampling, testing or inspections, getting it away from the border," said James Laws, the council's executive director.
He said the rest of the shipments not slated for testing will be "pre-cleared" before reaching the border, allowing them get to market sooner.
A council presentation on the project argues that "redirecting Canadian meat trucks to U.S. inspection centres also wastes time and fuel" and delays drivers from getting back on the road, at a cost of "roughly $100" per hour.
Opponents of the plan say it's important that all trucks go through inspection houses, to allow for inspections that can detect the kinds of problems pictured in the photos taken and sent to the U.S. agriculture secretary in that Sept. 18, 2012, letter.