'Get rid of this silly BS,' P.E.I. premier urges Ottawa as potato export ban drags

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says Ottawa should cut the "silly BS" and do more to end the ban on Island potato exports to the U.S.

'If we're really Team Canada, let's act like it's Team Canada,' says Premier Dennis King

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King and a delegation of provincial officials were in Washington, D.C., Thursday in an effort to reverse the suspension of fresh potato exports to the U.S. (CBC)

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says Ottawa should cut the "silly BS" and do more to end the ban on Island potato exports to the United States.

A delegation of P.E.I. officials, including the premier, met with U.S. government representatives in Washington, D.C., Thursday in an effort to reverse the suspension.

The premier said the delegation effectively conveyed their position to American lawmakers, and how the ban could eventually become a food security issue for the U.S.

"They're also shocked and surprised when they hear that [the Canadian Food Inspection Agency] has so much confidence in their product that they're allowing us to ship our product across the country of Canada, and to be consumed in cities and towns all across Canada," King said.

"So they don't understand why there's a disconnect between Canada and the U.S. And as I say, that's part of the reason why we're here."

Canada suspended all shipments of fresh potatoes from P.E.I. to the U.S. in November after fungal potato wart was discovered in two fields in the province. Officials have said that the U.S. would have imposed a ban had Canada not acted first, which would have been more difficult to reverse.

The potato wart fungus poses no threat to human health or food safety. (CBC)

But the province argues that it was already managing potato wart successfully, as it has been following a plan that's been in place since the fungus was first discovered on P.E.I. more than 20 years ago. The management plan was developed by the CFIA, in co-operation with American officials.

Potato wart is considered a serious agricultural pest. It disfigures potatoes but is not a threat to human health.

The U.S. potato market is worth about $120 million a year to Prince Edward Island.

MLAs unable to see management plan

As provincial leaders lobby Washington, measures are being proposed on the Island to avoid or minimize future export bans, including permanently removing infected fields from potato production and dividing the province's farmland into zones so any potential future bans might only affect a portion of P.E.I.'s production.

MLAs with the province's standing committee on natural resources expressed frustration Wednesday that they haven't been provided with any details from the CFIA's long-term management plan for potato wart on P.E.I.

"It isn't our plan to share," said Deputy Agriculture Minister Brian Matheson. The province has asked CFIA if it could share the plan, he said, and was told no.

MLAs will question CFIA officials in Ottawa by video link when the same committee meets on Friday.

In a written statement earlier this week, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government is continuing its work to get the border reopened to the exports.

"We believe in the science that says the U.S. demands go beyond what is needed to manage risk. In order to resume trade, however, the CFIA must work through the scientific evidence with the U.S. to give them the reassurances needed."

'Standing up for the science'

Recently, Canadian representatives have been in negotiations with their American counterparts to determine what needs to be done to get the border open. 

Earlier this month, the CFIA met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to discuss the suspension.

King said he has "no doubt" Ottawa believes issuing its own suspension was the best option it had, but that he's frustrated the federal government isn't more involved in solving the dispute.

Potatoes were destroyed in 2001 when potato wart closed the U.S. border to P.E.I. potatoes. (Mary Kay Sonier/PEI Potato Board)

"We certainly feel as a province that … our country should be standing up for the science," he said. "Because we found the most recent incidents in Prince Edward Island — that is an illustration that our plan is working.

"And we want our federal government, our federal agency, to respect that and to come down here, like we are, and talk about it, explain it and defend it. Because it is a good, solid policy that has been developed by both countries."

King said it would've shown that the issue was important to Ottawa if Bibeau had offered to join the delegation.

Ottawa pushing 'Team Canada' approach

In a statement, the agriculture minister said she was meeting with U.S. ambassador David Cohen on Thursday to discuss the suspension. She also pointed out that Trade Minister Mary Ng brought it up during a recent U.S. visit and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also raised the issue with President Joe Biden.

"I have raised it with my counterpart Secretary [Tom Vilsack] multiple times and my deputy minister visited his counterpart in the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week. Our ambassador [Kirsten Hillman] has also been very engaged with U.S. officials on this," she said.

"Our government has been pushing a Team Canada approach to resolve this issue since the beginning. Between myself, my team and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we have been keeping the province fully informed every step of the way."

Bibeau said the CFIA is working with U.S. officials and attempting to demonstrate to them that Canada's management practices successfully contain the fungus. She said they've discussed risk-mitigation measures and the results of the CFIA investigation on the potato wart discovery, among other things.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in a statement that King's comments aren't helpful.

"It's a shame that the premier would say one thing in private about collaboration and progress and then another in public," he said.

"This does not help our shared cause of helping Islanders through this difficult time and Islanders would be better served with more respectful and productive behaviour going forward."

'No sense of urgency'

It is still unclear when the suspension could be lifted, but a source in Ottawa told CBC News it could be months.

Ottawa seems intent to leave the issue to regulators, King said, who have "no sense of urgency."

"They don't understand that the family farm is going to go out of business in Prince Edward Island if we're not able to do this. We just lived through 21 months of COVID, and the mental health of our farmers, and all of our Islanders, is at a limit," he said.

"Now we have to deal with the fact that their industry may be destroyed for no good reason.

"So are we frustrated with how Ottawa is dealing with this? Absolutely. And it's time to get rid of this silly BS and let's get to work and get this open. Because if we're really Team Canada, let's act like it's Team Canada."

With files from Katie Simpson, Brian Higgins and The Canadian Press


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