Issue 228: March 2005


 Avoiding Risk

Which is better, to avoid risk, or to set up a system which induces risk and then try to manage it? The British Columbia government's new Regulation for livestock slaughter in the province is an excellent example of the problems inherent in the ‘risk management' approach.

The new Regulation is described as ‘outcomes-based', the outcomes being population health and a viable, sustainable agriculture. However, to achieve such outcomes a livestock slaughter regime must be based in practices which avoid health risk, such as

  • small numbers of animals being processed at a time (hands-on operations)
  • minimal trucking distances for animals (minimal stress on animals – and farmers – and reduced stress-induced disease and filth)
  • limited market scope – i.e. the meat is sold within the region (easy to trace)

Think of this as an exercise in the precautionary principle. The health of the system is based on healthy livestock, the avoidance of stress, and direct relationships between producer, processor, and consumer.

The clear prejudice of the CFIA and BC Centres for Disease Control towards large-scale, industrial, paper-trail, export-oriented models, on the other hand, is reflected in their rigid requirements for abattoir construction and their touching faith in the power of stainless steel. The cost of upgrading to these requirements has already caused a number of local small abattoirs in BC to close (a process described by one farmer as “a train wreck in slow motion”.) By September 2006, when the regulation will be fully in force, we will see:

  • the closure of most if not all currently operating fixed and mobile slaughter facilities
  • the exit of many small and specialty livestock producers from production
  • the consequent decline of small-scale, diversified agriculture in BC – including fruit and vegetable production on mixed farms
  • the consequent decline of rural communities
  • the loss of healthy local food production capacity
  • reduction in population health as we become increasingly reliant on imported produce at a cost determined by outside forces
  • increased risk in the meat business related to long-distance trucking and large-scale processing, paper trails etc. notwithstanding

In other words, the exact opposite of the stated outcomes of the Regulation.

Time to blow the whistle on the CFIA

It is time to label the CFIA – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – for what it is: corrupt and incompetent. The CFIA came into being April 1, 1997, and it has been a bad – and costly – joke ever since. It was set up to make it appear as a credible, independent agency of the Canadian Government, to “consolidate inspection, and animal and plant health services of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada” reporting to the Minister of Agriculture. Its prime objectives were announced to be “consumer protection and the promotion of Canadian trade and commerce”. At the time it appeared to be little more than a re-labelling of the Biotechnology Strategies Coordination Office of Agriculture Canada, as its staff were the same people at the same desks with the same phone numbers.

The Government has never been apologetic about the dual – and contradictory – mandates of the CFIA even though this dual mandate has destroyed the credibility of the organization. Of more concern to the government, it would seem, are the benefits that accrue to its corporate cronies, at public expense, in the name of “food safety” and trade.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the shameless and relentless promotion of genetic engineering by the CFIA. From the day of its establishment, the CFIA has functioned as a lobby for Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry. Its contempt for the public has been most explicitly expressed in its adamant refusal to require the labelling of GE food. Despite loud claims that all of its work is “science-based,” the CFIA's procedures for approving genetically engineered crops and foods are based on the information it receives from the petitioners, that is, Monsanto But it could hardly be otherwise – and was not intended to be otherwise – when the government closed the laboratories and got rid of the scientists that might actually have tested, and not just ‘assessed,' the GE crops offered for approval.

To avoid public and independent scientific scrutiny, the CFIA routinely declares all information it receives from its ‘clients' as proprietary, or confidential business information. Translated, this means, “It's none of your business.” We are simply supposed to trust the CFIA, even though all the evidence suggests that it acts solely in the interest of its corporate clients, not the public interest. That the companies whose products have been approved – primarily Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer – are not remotely Canadian makes it clear that it is trade and commerce per sethat the CFIA is to promote, regardless of the consequences for Canadians or the environment.

Consider recent events:

The first case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, so called because it causes sponge-like lesions in the brain) was found in a beef cow in Alberta in May 2003. Prior to that, a different form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE), Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), was found in Canadian game-farm elk in 1996 and confirmed in wild deer in 2001. The CFIA has insisted that it is not possible for CWD to pass from wild animals to cattle. In 2002 the CFIA declared that CWD had been eradicated in farmed elk, though there is no empirical basis for such a claim.

When BSE was identified in the Alberta cow, the US shut off the flow of live cattle from Canada. (The previous year, Canada exported 1.6 million head of cattle for slaughter in the USA.) Closing of the border has had a devastating effect on Canadian cattle prices and Canadian farmers, while the major beef slaughtering plants – Cargill and Tyson, both in Alberta and both US-owned – appear to have benefitted handsomely from the depressed prices for slaughter animals while retail prices did not plummet. Since then Canadian cattle producers have been pleading with the CFIA to introduce mandatory testing of all slaughter animals for BSE to ensure that no BSE gets into the food system (for humans or livestock) but the CFIA has not only refused, but has not allowed such testing even by those smaller slaughterhouses that wish to introduce it. Thus it appears that the CFIA is far more interested in the “trade and commerce” of Cargill and Tyson than in the welfare of Canadian farmers or the health of Canadian meat eaters.

The presence of BSE in Canadian cattle has been attributed to the recycling of animal protein in animal feed – feeding cows to cows – which transmits a prion which is believed to be the causal agent. More remains unknown than known about the ways of these disease-causing ‘prions', but it would seem to be prudent, to say the least, to institute an immediate ban on including blood and bone meal in any animal feed. This did not happen. The Government implemented a feed ban in 1997 prohibiting the feeding of ruminant animals with “most mammalian proteins.” However, it did not prohibit the manufacturing of such feed for other classes of livestock and pets. The assumption obviously was that there would never be a mix-up in the feed, whether in the feed mill or on the farm. This assumption could be said to be naive at best.

Not until December 2004 did the CFIA move to prohibit the use of specified risk material or SRM (that is, material rendered from cattle parts such as brains and spinal cord, known to be the most active sites of BSE) in all animal feeds, including pet food.

Either the CFIA cares more about the health of transnational agribusiness and trade than about Canada's farm animals and food sources or it is simply incompetent and out of touch with reality.

The Avian Flu outbreak in British Columbia's Fraser Valley in 2004 led to the killing of 19 million chickens and related poultry under orders from the CFIA. About 1.2 million of these birds tested positive for the H7N3 virus and were composted, incinerated or landfilled; the rest of the birds went to market. Among the birds eliminated were those of specialty poultry (rare breeds and Certified Organic) and ‘backyard' flocks, that is, small flocks raised for home consumption. Now their owners are calling for an independent inquiry to probe the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's “mismanagement” of the avian flu outbreak.

A Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture that held hearings in January into the whole sad affair learned that only one backyard flock was infected with the avian flu, rather than 12, as the CFIA had stated. Dr. Barbara Fisher, a backyard flock owner in Abbotsford, testified that the CFIA unnecessarily killed more than 18,000 backyard birds, of various species, even though other countries dealing with an avian flu outbreak offered alternatives, such as isolation, to backyard bird owners. Fisher observed that the one backyard flock that was infected tested positive for the flu three days after a commercial farm located 400 metres away was depopulated.

Ken Falk, spokesman for the Specialty Bird producers told the Committee “politics appeared to drive disease management strategies rather than basing decisions on science” – the purpose being to re-open international trade as soon as possible for the four industrial ‘feather' producer groups (chicken, egg layers, broiler hatching and turkeys). He said the CFIA ran rough-shod over the specialty bird producers and backyard flock owners and didn't care if small businesses, such as his, survived or died. “I quote one high-ranking CFIA official who said to me: ‘I am well aware of your business issues Mr. Falk and they are of no concern to me.'” – BC Newspaper Group 31/1/05

Bangkok, February 2005: A striking example of the CFIA doing the dirty work for its corporate clients occurred in Bangkok at a meeting of “ SBSTTA 10” (a scientific advisory body to the Convention on Biological Diversity) in February. According to a confidential document leaked to ETC Group, the Canadian delegation was instructed to overturn an international moratorium on genetic seed sterilisation technology (known universally as Terminator), and, even worse, to “block consensus” on any other option. Thankfully, ETC Group reported, disaster was averted due to key interventions by the governments of Norway, Sweden, Austria, the European Community, Cuba, Peru and Liberia on behalf of the African Group.

According to the leaked instructions to Canadian negotiators, Canada was to insist that governments accept the field testing and commercialization of Terminator varieties (referred to as GURTS – Genetic Use Restriction Technologies). As a result of the leaked documents being made public, Pat Mooney reports, during the plenary debate Canada took a low-key role and did not call for field trials or commercialization and did not speak out against the moratorium other than to suggest that national governments might make independent decisions and, again, to suggest that national capacity-building might be useful to understand Terminator technologies. The Canadian delegation apparently made no attempt to deny the authenticity of the leaked report. Mooney added,

“We have the distinct impression that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is taking the lead within the Canadian delegation on this issue.” – ETC Group report 9/2/05

The comment of Stephen Yarrow, national manager of the Plant Biosafety Office at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, confirms this: “There's no scientific reason why GURTs should be banned before we've been able to evaluate them in field trials. The Canadian government supports farmers and seed saving. However GURTs are a whole class of new technologies that offer a number of potential advantages.” – Stephen Leahy, IPS news, 11/2/05

Advantages to Monsanto and Syngenta, obviously, but certainly not to, the Canadian public, the Third World, or farmers anywhere.

The final item in this brief litany of deceit has to do with the shifting sands of regulation in the meat industry and the even larger issue of the CFIA seeking to modernize and harmonize its regulation and integrate its information systems with those of the paranoid US and its Patriot Act.

This is the intent of Bill C-27, the CFIA Enforcement Act on “smart regulation”. If passed, Bill C-27 will give the CFIA new powers to make regulations that will:

  • lock us into the US regulatory system,
  • increase privatization of the regulatory system,
  • cripple our ability to protect our food system and diversify our trading relationships,
  • make it even harder for the family farm and the small food processor to survive.

For more information and how to take action,

As the example of the new provincial Regulation in BC shows, the obvious intent of the CFIA's moves to increase “food safety” in the slaughtering and processing meat in Canada is to drive all the small local slaughter facilities (including mobile abattoirs) out of business by requiring them to meet the standards expected of factories slaughtering thousands of animal a day for export (Cargill, Tyson, Maple Leaf). The fact that it is on the factory farms and in the processing factories that all the disease problems arise seems to be irrelevant. In all the discussion there is never any consideration of where the pathogens come from and why. As a consequence, the countryside is to be tidied up and all meat production delivered into the hands of transnational agribusiness.

If the CFIA were actually concerned about public health, it would put real regulations in place that would govern line speeds, worker safety, cleanliness and plant size. It would also outlaw the trucking of live animals long distances (except for valuable breeding stock) on the grounds of cruelty to animals and food safety (stress-induced disease). At the same time, it would find ways to provide inspection services to small local slaughterhouses, including mobile plants, to serve diversified small scale agriculture. Of course this would destroy the meat packing industry as it is, but that would serve the public interest. It would help to put control of the food system back in the hands of farmers and communities, where it should be.

It is not reasonable, however, to expect the CFIA to perform such a radical operation on itself. Therefore, the first step would be the dismantling of the CFIA and the creation of an independent food regulatory agency responsible not to Transnational Agribusiness and Market ideology but to Parliament and the Canadian public.


#228: March 2005 TOC
Avoiding Risk:the CFIA avoids precaution in meat processing
Time to blow the whistle on the CFIA: BSE; Avian Flu; Terminator
Technology; Slaughterhouse Regulation
Ripe for Attack: US businessmen recognize the vulnerability of integrated food system
Chiquita McDonald? Chiquita buys Fresh Express, sells salad and fruit to McD
Corporate Profile: Unilever -- some background on the global food giant
The retail food police: moratorium is now lifted, stores can label GE food
Potatoes: Not an amusing diversion - PEI farmers are asked to dump potatoes; Organic option - blight resistant varieties developed in Europe; Why vaccination by potato got chopped
Hungry Pigs: a proponent of factory farming changes heart
More trade, more toxins: Chilean farm workers suffer from export crop production
Globalization tidbits