In the wake of an internal audit that found major deficiencies in the safety systems used to screen food imported into Canada, a microbiologist and former Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) official says that country’s import process—and possibly that of the U.S.—could benefit from an overhaul.
It’s a very systematic approach: The importer, the exporting country, and distributors know what they’re facing, and there are consequences for failure.
Phyllis Entis, MS, eFoodAlert
The audit, released at the end of September, assessed import controls for all nine food commodity programs: meat, fish, eggs, dairy, maple, honey, fresh fruits and vegetables, processed products, and non-federally registered products. It found that “…CFIA Management of Imported Food Safety has deficiencies that represent multiple areas of risk exposure requiring significant improvements related to the governance, control, and risk management processes.” The audit also noted particular problems with tracking the “non-federally registered” products, which include beverages, infant formula, confectionery, cereals, spices and seasonings, and baked products.
Phyllis Entis, MS, author of the eFoodAlert food safety blog served with CFIA—which was then called the Health Protection Branch—in the 1970s.
“Certain foods were considered high risk and were automatically held at import until they were tested and cleared,” she said. “Things have changed since then, not necessarily for the better.”
Entis says Canada should consider a multi-tiered import system like the one used in Australia, which includes a risk food category and a surveillance food category. “Surveillance foods are the ones considered to be low risk and are theoretically sampled for testing at roughly a 5% frequency, random,” she explained. “The risk food category works in a very systematic way. After assessment, [it is] considered risk food if it has a medium to high risk to public health, which is a function of the type of food, the source of the food, and so on.”
All imported consignments from “risk food” categories are held by customs and must be tested until five consecutive batches pass. Entis explained that once the products pass five in a row, the inspection rate drops to 25%. After 20 consecutive passes at the 25% rate, those consignments are inspected at the 5% rate of “low risk foods.” If any consignment fails, however, it is held back until the success rate is re-established.
While those precise numbers might not work in another country, the approach would, she said. “It’s a very systematic approach: The importer, the exporting country, and distributors know what they’re facing, and there are consequences for failure,” she added.