Canada's reputation as a safe pork supplier could make it a prime target for food fraud
Trade Minister Jim Carr says government working 'aggressively' to lift China's meat import ban
Canada's reputation as a safe and reliable supplier of pork products during a devastating outbreak of swine fever could explain why a shipment to China fraudulently claimed it was cleared by Canadian inspectors.
The RCMP's international investigations unit has launched a probe into a batch of pork products labelled with a falsified Canadian Food Inspection Agency export certificate. China has since suspended all meat imports from Canada.
International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr said today he wouldn't speculate on the possible origin of the meat, but suggested that whoever falsified the documentation for it was exploiting Canada's status as a safe supplier.
"We know that we are sending abroad the finest pork in the world. We know that the Canada brand is an elite brand. So I guess it might be in somebody's interest to use that branding and that reputation," he said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
"But we don't know. Those are the reasons we're aggressively investigating."
Carr told guest host Heather Hiscox that Canadian and Chinese officials are working together to resolve the problem and the two nations share an interest in finding a speedy solution.
Canada currently is one of a small number of "eligible shippers" of pork products to China, as global supply is being constrained by an outbreak of African swine fever.
African swine fever is a fatal disease in pigs that has been around for decades. A massive outbreak has ripped through parts of Asia — it struck China last summer — leading to mass culls of millions of pigs.
Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs for the Canadian Pork Council, said there are many reasons to believe the product shipped with a falsified export certificate did not originate in Canada.
No one in the Canadian industry would want to jeopardize market access and sales, he said.
"For the same reason we're interested in maintaining the Chinese market, because there is demand, other countries ... other people involved in, say, the global pork industry see that opportunity and decided to pass it off as Canadian."
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website, an outbreak of African swine fever in Canada would have "a significant economic impact on the country and the Canadian pork industry."
"African swine fever has never been found in Canada and we intend to keep it that way," the website says.
Canada agreed Tuesday to stop issuing export certificates for meat destined for China after Chinese customs inspectors detected residue from a restricted feed additive called ractopamine in a Canadian shipment of pork products.
When Chinese authorities advised Canada of the red-flagged shipment on June 14, the CFIA asked to review the export certificate. CFIA inspectors subsequently confirmed the certificate was inauthentic.
Food supply chain management expert John Keogh said food fraud has become a significant problem in China.
He said any documents can be forged if controls and verification processes aren't strong enough, and Canada could make improvements by updating its system.
"It's really about risk mitigation and the levels of covert, overt or forensic security features that you can put in or on the products, or in and on the documents, depend on the risk that you have," he said.
The meat import ban arrived at a time of rising tensions between China and Canada over the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer.
Meng was arrested Dec. 1 in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities, who want to try her on fraud charges.
Days after Meng's arrest, China detained two Canadians and sentenced another to death.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been accused by the Chinese of trying to steal state secrets. No evidence has been provided and they have not been allowed access to family members or lawyers while in custody.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now in Japan for the G20 summit. Carr said the summit presents an opportunity for Trudeau to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping directly, since "informal conversations" occur at these summits.
"We're very keen to engage Chinese leadership and diplomats at all levels, because I believe, and I'm sure most Canadians would believe, that the best way to resolve a problem is to talk through it," Carr said. "And when we're able to do that, I think we'll make progress."
With files from the CBC's Mike Crawley