Soil sampling for potato wart ramps up on P.E.I. as concerns around Canada's food inspection agency remain

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is ramping up testing for potato wart in Island fields, as a working group begins a review of the agency's role and how it could better meet the needs of Canadian producers.

$12M in federal funding being used to increase soil collection, testing capacity amid seed potato ban

Crews from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency transfer soil samples to a truck in Kensington, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is ramping up soil sampling for potato wart this spring as part of an ongoing investigation into the 2021 detections on P.E.I., as a working group begins a review of the agency's role and how it could better meet the needs of Canadian producers.

The CFIA banned potato shipments to the U.S. in November, a decision designed to pre-empt an all-out U.S. ban after potato wart fungus, an otherwise harmless disease that disfigures potatoes and reduces crop yields, was detected in two fields on the Island last fall.

Table potato shipments resumed this month, but seed potatoes, which comprise roughly 10 per cent of the Island's annual output, are still banned in the U.S. and the rest of Canada pending the outcome of a more thorough investigation that could take much longer to complete.

CFIA officials have said that more than 35,000 samples will be needed to complete the 2021 investigations.

A spokesperson for CFIA said sampling, which will mainly take place in fields surrounding Kensington and Summerside, began on April 13 and will continue until June 3. Over 25 days of sampling in that time, the agency said it hopes to collect approximately 700 samples a day, weather permitting, which would get them halfway to 35,000. 

CFIA has said it hopes to collect between 18,750 and 25,000 samples this spring. These are soil samples at the CFIA lab in Charlottetown. (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

The rest of the investigation samples will be collected in the fall of 2022, after the harvest.

Field and lab capacity increasing

The agency received $12 million over two years in the recent federal budget to increase its soil collection and testing capacity by hiring more staff. 

As of Tuesday, CFIA said it has hired and trained about 75 new staff for sample collection, and 10 CFIA inspectors will be leading the soil-sampling crews.

It said the CFIA Charlottetown laboratory is also adding 17 new lab technicians to operate a second shift.

Starting May 1, CFIA said, it will have the capacity to complete analysis on 3,000 samples a month.

The spokesperson said the fields to be sampled and tested are prioritized based on risk-mitigation measures.

Over the 25 days of sampling, the agency said it hopes to collect approximately 700 samples a day, weather permitting. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture said he wants the investigation to proceed as quickly as possible for the sake of the Island's seed potato industry.

"Soil sampling, if that's what it takes to get seed potatoes moving off Prince Edward Island, then we must get it done as quickly as possible. And if the $12 million isn't enough, then we'll have to go looking for more," said Donald Killorn.

"We have to see additional capacity in the laboratories as well. If you're collecting a thousand samples but you're only testing 500, then you haven't really fixed the problem.

We do hope that will lead to the re-opening of the seed potato trade as quickly as possible​​​—Donald Killorn, P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture

"If they insist upon this significant increase in sampling on Prince Edward Island, they have to bring the necessary capacity," Killorn said.

"So in their expertise and wisdom, they put $12 million in the budget. And we do hope that will lead to the reopening of the seed potato trade as quickly as possible."

Donald Killorn, executive director of P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, says he knows the review of CFIA will take time but is hoping for a 'serious update' within six to eight months. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Agency role under review

Killorn said work is underway to review the role of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, based on a resolution from the P.E.I. annual general meeting, which was then passed at the national AGM. 

"There are other industry groups, particularly fruits and vegetables growers, who are also concerned with CFIA, and as such, there has been a working group struck with senior officials at CFIA," Killorn said. 

"It will include potatoes, and they have begun their work and so we look forward to further updates."

Killorn said there are some key points that the P.E.I. federation hopes will be addressed. 

"We do hope that CFIA will become more transparent, as well as more sensitive to industry's needs, particularly around international trade," Killorn said.

"If they're going to be the agency responsible for that negotiation, then they must have the expertise to effectively negotiate at those tables."

Greg Donald, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board, is pictured in Ottawa during a meeting about the suspension of trade in P.E.I. potatoes with the U.S., on Dec. 2. (P.E.I. Potato Board)

"This issue with P.E.I. potatoes this past season was really a matter of negotiation and expertise, and failing to take the information provided by industry and effectively use that to negotiate with our trading partners," Killorn said. 

Discussion of management plan

Killorn said another resolution called for the creation of a working group to look at the current potato wart management plan. 

"I have seen action. CFIA, the P.E.I. Potato Board and the government of Prince Edward Island have been proactive in the establishment of a few different working groups around science, around best management practices," Killorn said.

"They are utilizing those working groups to bring expertise to Prince Edward Island from across Canada and internationally from countries in Europe that have been managing potato wart effectively."

Officials from the P.E.I. Potato Board join P.E.I. Premier Dennis King, scientist Carolyn Sanford and Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson at a news conference on Nov. 22 about the potato wart issue. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

Killorn said the federation has been invited to be part of the working groups.

"We continue to call for a made-in-P.E.I. strategy that we're all comfortable with for managing the risk of potato wart," Killorn said.

"So that our industry is insulated from the risk of potato wart, and there's cascading impacts, too, to our economy when we have these shutdowns."


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.

With files from The Canadian Press