With all the media hype about XL Foods, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we still have a food regulatory system as good as any. And it’s getting better. The Harper government’s quick adoption and speedy implementation of all 54 recommendations of the Weath¬erill Report on the 2008 listeriosis outbreak, is now being followed by two significant legislative initiatives to help modernize the legal bases of our system, something we promised years ago when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was created. We’ve had more progress in the reform of our food regulatory regime in the last six months than we’ve had in the last nine years.
The Safe Food For Canadians Act (S-11) will repeal and replace three of our oldest food statutes. The legislative process is being managed well by the CFIA and the bill enjoys strong political support for early enactment. The govern¬ment wisely stayed away from tampering with the accountability and authorities of the two ministers who would have been involved with some big new “Food Act,” a bad idea promoted by many who didn’t understand our legal system.
Already passed into law is a major amendment to the Food and Drugs Act, thanks to the infamous Bill C-38. This is not just some proposal for future change; the new legislation came into force on Oct. 25, 2012. Recognizing how much the old sclerotic system undermined regulatory responsiveness, the amendments to the Act now provide for a significant expansion of two existing tools: Ministerial Authorizations (MAs) and Incorporation by Reference (IbR). MAs can establish classes, set condi¬tions, and exempt from the Act and its Regulations various matters relating to claims and substances by simple ministerial regulations. Moreover MAs can incorporate documents by refer¬ence, allowing substances and claims to be added or removed from existing classes and lists. So, for example, in the case of additives, after the health risk assessment is complete, new additives or new uses can be added to the list by departmental action alone.
The Tables to Division 16 will not be revoked until later, but will no longer be updated as the authoritative provisions will be contained in the new administrative Lists of Permitted Food Additives. Service standards after the scientific assessment is completed are set out as six months for a new additive and only two to three months for extensions of use. This is a remarkable reform con¬sidering that it used to take two to three years or more for the same result. At last, our additive tables will be able to keep up with the fast pace of changing science and technology. This is a long overdue reduction in red tape. Due process remains with the same level of scientific assessment and public consultation.
There’s more. Subsection 30.2 provides the opportunity, through the combined power of the MA/IbR tool, to expedite the provision of a modern administrative framework for new health claims — kudos to Health Min¬ister Leona Aglukkaq for exceeding what many of us thought possible. Subsection 30.3 makes it clear that the MA/IbR technique can be used to change the maximum residue level of contaminants such as agricultural chemicals, set the maximum residue limit of a veterinary drug and the minimum or maximum level, or both, of a vitamin, a mineral nutrient, or an amino acid in or on food. The last is potentially the most significant as it could provide, by mainly administrative means, a more modern food fortification regime, something that has been promised for over 10 years and a change that is recognized as a practical necessity if the food-Natural Health Product mess is ever to be re¬sol ved in a more comprehensive way.
Readers of this column over the past 10 years will know that I have been a frequent critic of Health Canada’s Food Directorate, so it gives me great pleasure to publicly compliment Dr. Sam Godefroy and other officials for their leadership in securing these significant reforms, the importance of which will become even clearer in the coming years if they are implemented well. A more responsive food regulatory system will enhance innovation, investment and competitiveness.
The following was originally published in Food in Canada magazine.