Joint Canada-U.S. food safety idea floated during NAFTA talks

Joint Canada-U.S. food safety idea floated during NAFTA talks

Timed to coincide with the third round of talks over renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, two Canadian think tanks are suggesting NAFTA 2.0 should include a bilateral food protection system.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) and the Canada Institute of the Wilson Center have teamed up to promote “new thinking” about safety to encourage debate within the NAFTA renegotiation talks.

“Food safety is not just about consumer protection, it’s about enhancing the competitiveness of the Canada-U.S. agri-food supply chain around the world,” said CAPI’s Don Buckingham and the Canada Institute’s Laura Dawson.

NAFTA negotiators are in their third round of talks, meeting this week in Ottawa. The trade negotiators are moving so fast that it was not possible to book rooms for the 200 Americans or 160 Mexicans in the same hotel. Canada is using yellow school buses to shuttle delegates from their various hotels to Ottawa’s old city hall for the meetings.

“During a period of trade upheaval and fractured supply chains, it is particularly important to bring practical suggestions to the table that will build trade, increase competitiveness and safeguard the protection of consumers,” Buckingham and Dawson added.

The eight-page discussion paper, “Risk and Reward: Food Safety and NAFTA 2.0,” by Rory McAlpine and Mike Robach suggests Canada and the U.S. should establish a joint risk assessment organization for food safety.

McAlpine is senior vice president for government relations at Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods Inc., and Robach is vice president for corporate food safety and regulatory affairs at Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc.

Both Maple Leaf and Cargill are multi-national corporations that are active on both sides of the U.S.- Canadian border. McAlpine and Robach are both also leaders in the broader food safety community.

“North Americans share a highly integrated food supply, one that is perhaps the safest in the world,” their paper says. It says the two nations have “robust systems” of standards-setting, inspection and business practices that are highly uniform and well grounded in science.

Canada and the U.S. have a history of joint action dating back to 1912 when the two nations formed the International Joint Commission to manage the shared waters of the Great Lakes.

“The need to act jointly is heightened by the ‘One Health’ paradigm, which recognizes that the health of people is increasingly connected to the health of animals and the-the environment,” the paper continues.

“This is especially true for food and beverage harvesting, production and distribution, given the extensive cross-border integration of food supply chains, transmissibility of hazards — pathogens, contaminants, animal diseases, etc. — and common foodborne threats from offshore.

The Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) already exists to smooth out differences in food safety, meat inspection and animal and plant health between the two countries. The authors say that’s been a “good start, but tangible benefits to citizens and businesses have been few.”

They argue a Canada-U.S. a “food safety risk assessment organization” could deliver “the best science at the earliest stage of decision-making, reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and duplicative effort between agencies and accelerate time-to-market for food safety innovations and best practices.”

McAlpine and Robach see NAFTA 2.0 as a potential opportunity to bring about a new bilateral organization. They say modern disciplines for Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures in trade measures first occurred 23 years ago with the current NAFTA agreement.

“NAFTA renegotiation presents an opportunity to strengthen food (and feed) safety outcomes by establishing a new joint food safety risk assessment organization…,” their paper says.

Changes to food safety agencies, however, have not come quickly in the United States. Frequent recommendations for creating one food safety agency in the United States have failed to go anywhere. The mere transfer of catfish regulation to USDA from FDA took a decade to accomplish.

The Canada-U.S. joint agency would create a common scientific foundation for:

  • assessing and preventing emerging foodborne threats (microbiological, chemical and physical including, where relevant, those linked to animal and plant health through the “One Health” concept);
  • recommending food safety risk thresholds for pathogens, chemical residues, allergens, etc.;
  • conducting risk-assessment modeling for various pathogen-food combinations and potential interventions;
  • approving food safety interventions, technologies, and analytical test methods;
  • validating food safety best practices at all levels of food production, processing, distribution, and preparation;
  • sharing and interpreting food safety testing and surveillance data gathered across North America and globally;
  • examining emerging risks, establishing relationships between prevalence and levels of contamination and updating risk assessment models accordingly;
  • recommending innovative, outcome-based food safety inspection practices and compliance promotion strategies;
  • helping the International Food Protection Training Institute and Safe Food Canada to build a North American competence-based learning framework for standardized, certified food safety education and training;
  • building harmonized systems for traceability of meat, poultry, and other food products throughout the supply chain, from origin to the consumer.