Is NAFTA 2.0 the place for a US-Canada joint food safety agreement?
- Two Canadian think tanks are advocating a cross-border cooperative food protection system between the U.S. and Canada. The proposal was released to coincide with the third round of talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or what is being called NAFTA 2.0, which opened Sept. 23 in Ottawa.
- The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and the Canada Institute of the Wilson Center said it is a critical time for a conversation on protecting and improving the shared food supply chain. "Food safety is not just about consumer protection, it's about enhancing the competitiveness of the Canada-US agri-food supply chain around the world," Don Buckingham, the policy institute's president and CEO, said in a written statement about the proposal. "A well-functioning food safety regime helps to increase global demand for safe and wholesome North American food products."
- An eight-page position paper laying out the idea came from Rory McAlpine, senior vice president of government and industry relations for Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto, and Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill in Minneapolis. They wrote that while some may envy Canada's single food-safety agency — the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — and admire the food safety knowledge of U.S. institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both countries have strengths, and "we do things better when we do them together."
There is already a Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council to coordinate on food safety, meat inspection and animal/plant health matters, but this new proposal claims that even though the council was "a good start," tangible benefits have been few. They say more progress would come by combining the risk assessment functions of both countries' food safety regulatory agencies into a formal institutional partnership to deliver the best possible science at the earliest stage of decision-making and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and duplicative effort.
While this sounds positive, it would be difficult to accomplish because Canada and the U.S. regulate food safety differently. The U.S. has two main government entities — the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service — plus another dozen or so smaller agencies with different responsibilities that occasionally overlap. The Canadians have just one, and some think it's more efficient that way. The idea of combining U.S. agencies with food safety functions into one single mega-agency has been suggested many times but has gotten nowhere, mostly due to battles over budgets and turf.
There are other differences between the two countries' food safety approaches, and the paper touches on a few of them. Canada considers mustard a priority allergen, while the U.S. doesn't. They have different processes for determining the risk of bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging materials. FDA might accept an innovative microbial as GRAS — generally recognized as safe — while Health Canada might require full pre-market approval.
What the proposal's authors view as a more insidious problem is that sometimes technologies or protocols are available on one side of the border and not the other. As one example, they note that the 3M Company has developed a series of molecular detection assays that can significantly improve the performance and speed of testing for E. coli 0157, listeria and salmonella — but the latest versions of these analytical test methods are not approved for mandated tests in Canada.
Such issues could be resolved relatively easily if sufficient political will were on hand. However, at year 23, NAFTA remains as controversial as ever, and various interest groups are busy lobbying to get their own provisions added, taken out, or modified. Government leaders and their representatives are also jockeying for advantage.
The playing field isn't equal. Three-quarters of Canadian exports flow to U.S. customers, while only 18% of U.S. exports go to Canada, even though the northern neighbor remains the single largest customer for U.S. goods.
Then there's Mexico, which sent 160 negotiators to Ottawa for the NAFTA 2.0 sessions. Mexico is the largest exporter of fresh produce to the U.S. — which got about 70% of the total imported vegetables and approximately 31% of all imported fruits from south of the border last year, according to USDA.
As long as NAFTA as a whole remains in contention, let alone its renegotiation, it's hard to see how food safety improvements could get any bandwidth at the negotiating table in Ottawa, no matter how positive greater cooperation in that area may seem. But if the negotiations continue into next year, as some observers believe they will, there's plenty of time to find out.