In recognition of the important work of the committee, we will certainly be brief in our opening comments in order to provide all members the opportunity to answer those questions that are pertinent to you.
As indicated by the chair, my name is Dr. Brian Evans. I am the executive vice-president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I am very pleased to be present with very competent colleagues here at the hearings.
As you know, there have been recent reports that the CFIA plans to cut back on food inspections. I can well understand why these rumours would concern members of the committee. There is, however, no basis in fact to these reports.
I would like to clear up misconceptions about budget reallocation, and lay to rest any fears about the integrity of our food safety system.
We have a food safety system that is internationally recognized as one of the best in the world, and misinformation can threaten this hard-earned reputation.
We very much value and respect the trust that Canadians and consumers in other countries have in our food safety efforts. However, we also recognize that this is a trust that must be earned each and every day.
It is important to deal with the facts about our inspection system and I hope to clarify those facts today. I also welcome the opportunity to answer your questions about this system.
Mr. Chairman, the health and safety of Canadians has been, is, and always will remain the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's highest priority.
Last year, as part of the government's new expenditure management system, the CFIA was one of 17 departments and agencies that undertook a comprehensive review of its program and services. The objective was to put forward a series of reallocation proposals that would see resources reinvested more effectively to support government priorities.
For the CFIA, as outlined in the 2008 budget, the savings identified in the review were redirected to Canada's food and consumer safety action plan to enhance and protect the health and safety of Canadians. There were no reductions in funding for the CFIA as a result of this exercise, nor were there job losses. In fact, one of the goals of our strategic review was to ensure that the CFIA was allocating resources to areas of highest risk.
In response to a global food supply and the changing associated risks, the CFIA is modernizing the way it performs its core role so that it can continue to effectively manage risk to human health and the safety of Canadians, as well as risk to animal health and plant protection. Canadians expect and deserve the highest standard of protection from preventable risk to food safety. The CFIA is committed to the continuous assessment and improvement of our inspection approaches to reflect best practices.
In terms of efficiency, one of our strategic review initiatives being implemented is to consolidate our import document assessment and release activities. Such a single-window approach will provide increased bilingual service from the existing 20 hours, to 24 hours, seven days a week. It will also increase consistency in the review of import documentation and verification of import admissibility and allow us to better coordinate with our partners, such as the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Other savings were identified due to advancements in science and technology. For example, the CFIA has developed an environmentally friendly and more cost-effective method to dispose of dead birds that result from depopulation activities in the control of diseases such as avian influenza. This has allowed us to reallocate money originally intended for the purchase of specialized disposal equipment, which our experience and capacity now informs us we no longer need.
In no way does this reallocation diminish our avian influenza preparedness, which remains one of our main top priorities. In fact, we have recently begun implementing, in collaboration with producer and industry groups, an enhanced surveillance program.
Mr. Chairman, in budget 2008, the food and consumer safety action plan was earmarked to receive, through this process, $113 million over two years. The CFIA will receive some $62 million of this amount to enhance our system by concentrating on preventing problems, in the first place, in country of origin and pre-border, targeting the products that present the highest risks and providing rapid response to problems when they do occur.
On the subject of industry responsibility in our food safety system, as you know, food safety has always been a shared responsibility. Industry is responsible for ensuring that the food products they produce for the Canadian marketplace are safe. The CFIA's role is to verify that industy is fulfilling its responsibility.
Over the past decade and more, much industry and government effort has gone into developing and investing in science-based preventative systems to enhance food safety. For over 15 years, many parts of the Canadian food industry have already put these preventative systems in place to better detect, prevent, and eliminate problems before they occur. The most familiar of these are the hazard analysis and critical control point, or HACCP, systems. The industry plans must always meet CFIA specifications, and CFIA will always inspect, monitor and verify compliance so that food safety standards are met.
The term “self-policing” has sometimes been given a negative sense to describe this approach. The reality is that industry is responsible for investing in and putting in place science-based food safety systems in line with internationally recognized approaches to producing safer food. And of course there must always be strong government oversight, evaluation, verification, and effective enforcement and compliance action.
Modernization of our inspection systems is a responsive, and responsible, undertaking. The approach is not new. You may have read in the past CFIA reports on plans and priorities about our work on making inspection methods more effective.
Strong inspection presence is key to our success. Over the past two years, the number of CFIA inspectors has increased from 2,820 to 3,020. In previous testaments before this committee in my role as chief veterinary officer, I have indicated how we have grown the veterinary complement of the CFIA from its initial 473, in 1997, to its current 734. It will continue to increase under the food and consumer safety action plan.
Mr. Chairman, as committee members are aware, our BSE controls are a vital part of the CFIA's mandate and activities. These controls play an important role in protecting human and animal health and keeping markets open for Canadian producers. Since the first case of domestic BSE, or mad cow disease, was detected in 2003, more than 230,000 cows have been tested through the national surveillance program. Not only has this program demonstrated the low level of BSE in Canada, it has also helped restore and expand market access. The surveillance program also exceeds the stringent requirements of the World Organisation for Animal Health, or OIE, which now recognizes Canada as a controlled risk BSE country.
Canada's BSE surveillance program remains an important component in our strategy to manage BSE. Contrary to what you may have heard, we will maintain testing and surveillance activities to protect human and animal health from the threat of BSE and to continue to meet our international trade obligations.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, we are doing more, not less, to protect the health and safety of Canadians. We are also continually modernizing and improving our inspection systems to meet the challenges of a changing environment, whether it is emerging food safety risks or changes to technology or the marketplace.
When adjustments are made to inspection strategies or approaches, the CFIA has always considered best available science and best practices, and we have consulted with stakeholders and partners before they are implemented. That will continue. There will be no changes without appropriate consultation and foundation.
Canada's food safety system is recognized as one of the best in the world. Our goal is to keep it that way and, indeed, make it even better.
We collectively are prepared to answer all questions.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Let's rehash a little bit what's actually happened in today's committee meeting, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Easter and his gang know there's a secret report out there. They don't know what's in the report, and that's why they need somebody to table the report. Then when CFIA comes to deny the allegations that are made, Mr. Easter and his gang suddenly know some of the contents that are in the report. But they still need to see the report and they no longer believe what the witnesses have come forward and said.
If you listen to what Mr. Easter has said, or what Mr. Easter has alleged, there's going to be a decrease in funding. We see on page 2 that Mr. Evans says that there was no decrease in funding.
There has also been allegations that the avian flu preparedness is going to somehow be impacted to the negative. Mr. Evans has said on page 3 that there has not been any impact to the avian flu preparedness in this country.
Then Mr. Easter goes off and talks about decentralization and how this is all some big conspiracy about decentralization. Now, he may be afraid that there isn't going to be a green shaft in this country and there isn't going to be $15 billion sucked away from rural economies to give to, you know, downtown Toronto, but the fact of the matter is that there have been 200 more inspectors put in place in the last two years.
I hope Mr. Easter is taking notes of some of these things.
I do have a question for the witnesses.
Mr. Evans, you talked about your department being asked to identify a potential of 5% reallocation, some things that could be done more effectively or efficiently. I assume you met with these directions and came forward with at least 5% in proposals. Is that correct?
I'll ask some fast questions and give you lots of ice time to elaborate.
First, when will we see the report?
Second, on May 15, when the senior executives appeared here, there was no mention of the presentation of any plan to modify the food inspection systems. I'm asking if the senior executives were aware of the plan when they appeared. If they did, how do you explain their failure to mention it?
Third, since the proposed reform of the inspection system would affect your expenditure budget, wouldn't the transparency obligation binding on deputy ministers have required the witnesses to tell us about the intention to cut CFIA spending?
Fourth, is the proposed reform not part of your 2008-09 report on plans and priorities? Shouldn't it be part of it? If so, why wasn't it included?
Fifth, I would like your definition of what is a communication risk.
Last, for us all, why was this report not made public?
If I may, I think I've captured the points.
I am not in a position to dictate or respond to the first question of when any submission made to cabinet would be made public. As a non-partisan public servant, I am not privy to that information, so I regret I cannot provide you a fulsome response to that.
With respect to the appearance on May 15, which I believe was the appearance on main estimates...if I'm not mistaken, that was the main estimates appearance. Our main estimates in fact have been tabled, and those main estimates certainly do account for the planned expenditures on the part of CFIA. I'm aware that at that time there was brief discussion around the budget announcements of February and how the agency intended to implement those over the period of time, as reflected in our estimates, and at that time, as I recall, we had an extended discussion around not only this fiscal year's but projected fiscal years' impacts on the agency as a result of the sunsetting of tied funds that we had received for other initiatives in the past.
The 2008-09 report on plans and priorities, like all of our reports on plans and priorities in previous years, do make reference to adjustments in our inspection systems that are planned. The issue around, again, inspection modernization has been a theme through our submitted plans and priorities reports to Parliament that have been tabled over a several-year period and have reflected the changes in many of the sectors where those types of adoption of HACCP plans have been implemented.
The CFIA does not use the term “communication risks”. Risk communication is something that we do engage ourselves in. Risk communication is that effort on our part to inform Canadians of the environment in which we are operating, and to inform Canadians of ways that they can undertake measures that also protect them beyond the efforts of regulatory programming and industry efforts in that regard.
In that respect, with food safety we have undertaken programs, like FightBAC! and others, with food retailers and food processors that speak to Canadians about how food should be handled from the point of purchase in order to avoid cross-contamination, whether it be E. coli or salmonella. That is part of our efforts on risk communication and would be the type of construct that we would use to help inform Canadians so that they can take actions and make choices that best protect their family as well.
I hope I've answered your questions, honourable member. Unfortunately I can't read my written note of your last point.
I would just like us to be clear about the process of program review. We went through the 2005 experience, and if you google “program review”, you'll find at CMHC, posted on its website: these are our contributions for program review; we've found $6 million here and we're going to put it there.
In terms of finding 5% cuts in a regulatory agency, how do you go about that? And did you, at the beginning, have the reassurance that you would get to keep the money you found in order to reallocate it in a professional and scientific way within your own agency? It's a bit concerning that a regulatory agency would be cut because of what we're here today to look at.
So from a discussion document, presenting the discussion document to the minister, to the minister saying, “Oh, we can't do that”--like cutting the Snowbirds or something--to the minister preparing the memorandum to cabinet with you, to it going to cabinet and the cabinet saying, “No, you can't do that”; to this rumour that apparently this secret report was approved by Treasury Board; to again, whether or not you can look us in the eye now and say there have been no cuts, but there's an idea floating around that, come 2009, 2010, or 2011, there might be reductions in what were planned to be increases.... So I don't think the people of Canada want any fooling around, that there were no cuts; they want to know, were there actual reductions in what had been planned to be an increase, as opposed to there being no cuts and our just saying how that works?
I'm worried that we don't have the full story, and we won't until we have the report. In that process, from a discussion document to implementing a change in a budget, at some point did the minister or somebody say, “No, you can't do that”? And is there a second report that's reversing this plan? Where are we actually in these very specific rumours about cuts that the people of Canada want to know about?
I think we did hear, Dr. Evans, that the report does exist and that you've pleaded the fifth amendment, or whatever we do in Canada. So how do we deal with the significant communication risk, that somebody in the minister's office or somebody in PMO decided that this report of last November is too hot for public consumption? What are we to do now, in your job, to reassure Canadians when this is out there and Canadians are concerned?