Understanding Food Regulation in Canada: From Farm to Fork

During my first undergraduate degree in Kinesiology I was always fascinated with food and nutrition. In particular I was interested in how the food we eat can be converted into energy we need for survival and natural health products (NHPs) which started to accumulate on Canadian pharmacy shelves and grocery/health food stores in the 1990's. These health food stores had everything from /vitamins to minerals and specialty herbs which many athletes would scout and research to enhance performance and give them an "edge" to performance, without having to resort to anabolic steroid use. NHPs were also being used by classmates to gain an edge mentally, in order to help focus for exams, and to help some students who struggled to get proper nutrition while paying for their expensive undergraduate education. I still remember friends who would have protein shakes for lunch as it was cheaper than eating an actual meal on campus.
(Above): Is it food or is it a nutraceutical?
 (Created by Gursevak Kasbia)

I pursued my masters degree under Dr. Pascal Imbeault who helped nurture my fascination with natural health products and gave me free reign to develop my own masters project. I was ambitious...perhaps a little too ambitious. Perhaps I should have stuck with something easier but I ended up researching bitter melon and its effects on glycemia. After publishing and graduating with my masters from the University of Ottawa I worked a brief stint in the Natural Health Products Directorate of Health Canada and also was able to teach part time at the University.

When I pursued my degree in public and occupational health from Ryerson University, all graduates who trained as health inspectors were required to go through a rigorous 3 month practicum, write two papers and sit in front of 3 inspectors and be grilled to the tooth about local municipal and provincial food regulations, health and safety and environmental regulations. I passed my written and oral examination and became a certified health inspector in the fall of 2011. While in school we learned about the complex system of regulation in Canada in regards to food. As I was educated in Ontario we learned about provincial regulations as they pertain to food safety in particular Regulation 562: Food Premises Regulations under the Health Promotion and Protection Act (which has since been changed to Regulation 493/17: Food Premises) and provincial regulations as they pertain to certain agricultural products including egg and milk production and were able to skim the surface of Canadian Federal food regulations in Canada.

A Little Bit of History

In 1867 when Canada became a confederation the federal government and provinces at the time agreed to differentiate powers which can be found in section 91/92 of the Canadian constitution. From the beginnings of confederation there truly was little food regulation or oversight. Provincially sanitarians in April of 1913 created the Sanitary Inspectors Association of Western Canada. In the 1930's the group then formed the Canadian Institutes of Health Inspectors. During this time the government of Canada launched the Federal Department of Health in 1919 as Canada's population grew and international/provincial trade of food products boosted Canada's economy. The Food and Drug Act was established in the 1920's, and provided an initial framework for regulators to protect Canadian food and drug supplies. Until 1997 there were multiple federal agencies involved with regulatory enforcement of various acts related to food. It became difficult in many cases to be consistent in the approached used when having to achieve compliance and enforce regulatory standards for federal authorities. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was created in 1997 so that any food product manufactured, produced or transported inter provincially or internationally from Canada would be inspected in a consistent manner. All companies wanting to trade inter-provincially or internationally are thus required to register with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This also includes those who import food into the Canada and distribute food products between provinces.

Complexity in Regulations

Provincial food regulations vary by province and by-laws imposed by certain municipalities can even create more of a tangled web when it comes to regulation. Local public health inspectors certified by the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors conduct inspections on all premises that serve food that sell to the public. Abattoirs that sell a product locally will most probably be inspected by inspection staff from the provincial Ministry of Agriculture as slaughter for local food supply typically falls within provincial jurisdiction. This also becomes a thorny issue as some abattoirs do sell meat to the public and thus should a problem occur the provincial agricultural authority and the local health inspector may have to conduct a joint investigation, in particular, if contaminated or illegally slaughtered product was sold. As an example, some abattoirs have small counters at the front of the building where meat can be sold to the public. Thus the local health inspector may be called to conduct the retail food premise portion of the joint inspection. Farmers markets also can be controversial from an inspection standpoint, as what many do not realize is that some are inspected while others are not based on the quantity of food that is local. For instance, jurisdictions will not inspect farmers markets based on whether farmers are selling their own goods produced on the farm, the capacity of the venue and how many vendors may be present. The sad thing about many farmers markets is that some products are sold from wholesalers who may not necessarily be farmers and thus misrepresent a product as being "farm fresh". Some municipalities in certain provinces have worked proactively to address such labelling matters. Since each municipality is different it is best to consult the local inspection office.

(Above): Canada produces a vast diversity of food products
(Courtesy Agrifood Canada)
Federal food safety regulations are much more complex than local food safety regulations. Inspection staff have varied educational backgrounds, with many coming from food science programs. Some food science programs will teach regulation as a part of their coursework, while others focus more on the practical applications of food technology and chemistry.

Food is simply not what we see at the grocers or in our local restaurateur.  For instance in order for lettuce to grow in a local greenhouse for production they would have to ensure they have certified seed. Further to this the farmer would have have to determine the correct amounts of pesticides and nutrients the seeds would need to grow and ensure that no cross contamination is to occur between certain species.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not just regulate the food Canadians eat, but also regulates the seeds farmers plant for crops, the animals transported for slaughter or breeding, monitoring for disease and outbreaks in farm animals, food and plants and many other trade related food systems inspections.  Even the food coming into our country is audited overseas by a special group of inspectors who have years of experience working with food safety. Federal regulations cover 14 different acts and regulations including Dairy, Meat, Animal Transport, Feed, Agricultural Products, Seed, Plant Protection, Fish and Seafood, Processed Products (Fruit and Vegetable), Maple, Honey, processed and Shell Eggs along with components of the Food and Drug Act and Canadian Packaging and Labeling Act. These acts were consolidated in 2012 and became what is known as the SAFE FOOD FOR CANADIANS ACT. The proposed Safe Food for Canadians Regulations that accompany the act have taken many years to develop with input from industry and Canadians. The regulations focus on an outcome based approach, with emphasis on a synergistic relationship between all elements of a "Preventative Control Plan" for the products being produced. Achieving regulatory compliance along with the end result to create safe food products, such that consumers can transparently purchase products knowing that claims are not misleading, and the food they eat is of the highest Canadian quality. Believe it or not food fraud is a multi billion dollar industry that has many culprits, and has been estimated to affect about 10% of the food supply (US Grocery Manufacturers Association 2016) . Sometimes fraud is done unknowingly or companies may not have done due diligence when marketing their foods.

This blog will entry will continue next week ...