Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. My name is Derek Jamieson, and I am representing P & H Milling Group, a division of Parrish & Heimbecker Limited, at the invitation of this committee.
Parrish & Heimbecker is a privately held, Canadian-owned company. Parrish & Heimbecker Milling Group was formed following the acquisition of Dover Industries Limited by Parrish & Heimbecker in February of this year.
The P & H Milling Group consists of the combined milling assets of Dover Flour, New-Life Mills Limited, Ellison Milling Company, and Parrheim Foods, operating seven flour mills in five provinces across Canada, as well as a pea processing facility in Saskatchewan.
I also serve as the chair of the Canadian National Millers Association technical committee, and I am accompanied today by Mr. Gordon Harrison, president of the CNMA.
I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to present our views on recent events and background surrounding fusarium-infected wheat. Fusarium is a fungal disease that can occur in wheat and other grains and is more likely to develop if moist warm conditions occur during the flowering stage. The disease produces a mycotoxin on the kernels of wheat, commonly referred to as vomitoxin, or DON.
For many years, this disease was more prevalent in the wheat-growing areas of Ontario and other eastern provinces; however, it is becoming a greater concern in the wheat-growing areas of western Canada, where the majority of Canada's wheat is grown.
One of the impacts of fusarium is blighted or bleached kernels. This can affect the entire kernel or a portion of the kernel, and it is visible to the trained eye. The presence of fusarium-damaged kernels, or FDK, is a grading factor in Canada, and as such the top grades--1, 2, and 3 of Canadian Western Red Spring, for example--are permitted a quarter of a per cent, one per cent, and two per cent fusarium-damaged kernels respectively.
The significance of this is that the Canada Grain Act, through grading standards established by the Canadian Grain Commission, recognizes that fusarium not only exists in the main milling grades used by Canadian flour mills but is in fact permitted in the main milling grades used by Canadian flour mills.
I would like to emphasize that if there are FDK kernels present, there will be vomitoxin, or DON, present as well, and so by interpretation, the Canada Grain Act recognizes and accepts the presence of DON in wheat. I would also stress that while the presence of FDK indicates that DON will be present, there is no proven linear relationship. As an example, one per cent fusarium-damaged kernels does not predict a consistent level of DON.
Currently there are no regulations in Canada governing or restricting the level of DON in hard wheat, which is primarily used for bread and other yeast-leavened products. Canada first established guidelines for soft wheat in the 1980s, and the current guideline is for two parts per million in uncleaned soft wheat for non-staple foods and one part per million in uncleaned soft wheat for use in baby foods.
In light of the absence of hard wheat guidelines, the P & H Milling Group has adopted voluntary guidelines for hard wheat that mirror those in place for soft wheat. Approximately one year ago, as a consequence of discussions regarding Health Canada's proposed guidelines for ochratoxin A, we became aware that Health Canada was also embarking on a process to establish additional guidelines for vomitoxin in grain in Canada. This news was neither a surprise nor a concern to us. The flour milling industry is on record as asking Health Canada for hard wheat guidelines since 1994.
Furthermore, P & H Milling Group, along with several other mills in Canada, participated in a voluntary project in 2005 with Health Canada to assist it in supplying samples of grain, flour, and bran for a study of vomitoxin in Canadian grain and flour.
More recently, also through discussions around proposed guidelines for OTA, we learned of stepped-up compliance and enforcement activities by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This involves the monitoring of levels of OTA and DON at processing locations, including flour mills and further processors such as breakfast cereal manufacturers. Flour, bran, and other product samples are being shipped to CFIA labs in Burnaby for analysis, and results are being reported back to mills in approximately three to six weeks.
It is the CFIA's current compliance and enforcement activity that is giving rise to a great deal of uncertainty for millers and producers. This activity was begun without prior consultation with industry to advise us of the specific levels of OTA and DON that would be considered to be excessive.
This would have been an important step to take, considering the OTA guidelines are only at the proposal stage and that Health Canada's limited guidelines for DON that apply to soft wheat only are clearly indicated on the department's website as being under review.
The CFIA is an auditor of industry best practices, while industry is responsible to carry out these practices. We require regulations that are clear and guidelines that are meaningful and achievable in order to meet these responsibilities. Since there are no guidelines for either OTA or DON in either federal laws or regulations, the milling industry has been seeking clarification on CFIA's current enforcement policy.
In response to persistent inquiries from the Canadian National Millers Association and other industry sources, CFIA has provided conflicting advice to both industry and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. In some written and oral communication to millers and further processors, CFIA has advised that Health Canada intends to adopt the EU guidelines for DON and that the agency is therefore applying a maximum limit of 0.75 parts per million.
In other written and oral communication, CFIA has advised that since there are no established guidelines for OTA and DON, they are taking a zero tolerance approach, meaning that where laboratory analysis indicates the presence of either mycotoxin the results will be referred to the bureau of chemical safety, food directorate, Health Canada, for risk assessment.
We have no issue with these monitoring activities, and we support Health Canada's objective of proposing new guidelines for DON. We recognize and endorse these efforts to ensure the safety of Canada's food supply. However, we are alarmed and concerned about being subject to enforcement over guidelines that do not exist.
We are equally concerned that our industry, with other industry stakeholders, has taken several steps and opportunities to engage Health Canada and the CFIA to alleviate these concerns and to find interim solutions with very few tangible results so far. My colleague Mr. Harrison will address these concerns in more detail.
I suggest that given this atmosphere of uncertainty and a lack of any interim guidance from Health Canada or the CFIA, it is not surprising that some misunderstandings arose during the recent harvest in eastern Canada. These are the unwanted consequences of heightened concerns and a lack of collaborative efforts to bring solutions that benefit and protect every participant, from the grower to the consumer.
Thank you for this opportunity to present my views.
I think it's important that the committee note that while this hearing is around fusarium and it is triggered by events in P.E.I., Health Canada and CFIA are concerned about two mycotoxins in cereal grains, DON and ochratoxin A, and CFIA's compliance and enforcement activity is around both.
The second key point I'd like to make is that the compliance and enforcement activity has resulted in interventions at establishments at retail, milling, and a breakfast cereal manufacturing plant. So the uncertainty, the business risk, that producers and processors face is very real because it has resulted in very significant interventions so far.
Of major concern to the milling industry is the apparent disconnect between this activity and what we understood to be the significance of the Canada Grain Act and regulations and grading standards. We understood historically that the grading standards deemed milling wheat, graded as milling wheat, to be fit as milling wheat. At issue for us is the fact that after the fact, when milling wheat has been delivered to a mill and ownership is taken by a mill, this CFIA activity calls into question its suitability.
Finally, Derek spoke about process and the need for constructive dialogue. I think the committee should note that after a lot of discussions and representations with CFIA and Health Canada, we have proposed, as industry, a very comprehensive working group. It was proposed a week ago Friday. It's significant that both Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Health Canada have agreed to form this working group, so to the best of our knowledge we finally have an appropriate forum in which all interests--producers, processors, handling, and transportation--will be represented.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, for the opportunity to present our views on the issues surrounding fusarium head blight.
Just a little bit about me: I am Saskatchewan vice-president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and, along with my family, farm 7,500 acres in southeastern Saskatchewan.
In our presentation today we wish to focus on three areas. First, we'll talk about the grading standards that we face. Second, we'll talk about the need for a greater research effort into the development of more fusarium-resistant varieties in wheat and other cereals. Last, we'll discuss the possible new standards for vomitoxin or DON for the Canadian milling industry.
Fusarium head blight is one of the most serious quality issues facing wheat producers in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan. The stringent grading standards in place have contributed to a shift away from wheat acreage in the eastern prairies. For example, wheat acreage in Manitoba has declined by 40% in the 15 years since the first serious outbreak of fusarium occurred in 1993. By comparison, wheat acreage in Alberta has declined by only 15% over the same time period.
In recent years a more virulent strain of fusarium has become more prevalent on the prairies. According to the Canadian Grain Commission, this new strain accounted for 68% of all fusarium infections on the prairies in 2007, up from 6% a decade earlier. At one time there was a good level of correlation between the fusarium-damaged kernel count and the degree of vomitoxin or DON in the resulting flower. However, with this new strain, there is less predictability and less correlation between the level of kernel damage and the level of DON. As a result, we understand the Grain Commission is considering the tightening of grade tolerances for fusarium-infected wheat. Currently the tolerance for No. 1 spring wheat is 0.25% of fusarium-damaged kernels by weight, increasing to 5% fusarium-damaged kernels allowed in feed wheat.
In our view, tightening the visually based standards will unfairly penalize those farmers whose wheat is infected with the less virulent strain of fusarium. If the standards are tightened, then we would propose that farmers be granted the option to have their wheat tested and graded on the basis of the actual DON level present in their wheat sample. Providing an objective test-based grading option would ensure the value that farmers receive for their wheat is based on its true intrinsic quality and not on its appearance. It would provide farmers with a clearer market signal and allow us to make better decisions in terms of our cropping decisions, variety choices, and management practices.
The growing problem of fusarium points to the need for a greater research effort in the development of varieties that better resist this fungal disease. There are some fungicides on the market that can lessen the severity of infection; however, these are not fully effective and of course come with a cost, of more than $7 per acre.
In recent years varieties with better fusarium resistance have appeared on the market, largely thanks to the breeding efforts of Agriculture Canada researchers. This work continues, and we would encourage the devotion of greater resources to this increasing problem.
Part of this research could include the application of biotechnology. Farmers have already seen the significant economic and environmental benefits of biotechnology, including reduced pesticide use, lower fuel costs, reduced soil erosion, and higher yields. We believe biotechnology has the potential to play an important role in minimizing the effects of fusarium and in enhancing food safety.
Last, the Wheat Growers would like to provide comment on proposals to implement standards for DON levels in processed cereals, including flour and other products. We understand there are currently no regulations specifying tolerances for DON. We submit that the absence of such regulations is largely due to the exceptional food safety record of the industry. Farmers, grain handlers and marketers, the Canadian Grain Commission, and the milling industry have been successful in managing and mitigating the risks associated with fusarium-infected grain. To our knowledge, there has not been a single human health incident arising from DON in Canadian flour or food products.
To provide even greater consumer protection, the Wheat Growers are not opposed to the implementation of new regulations stipulating maximum DON levels in flour and food products. However, given Canada's outstanding food safety record in this area, we do not see a need for a hasty or haphazard approach. The Wheat Growers recommend a thorough consultation process with the industry, incorporating an examination of all mycotoxin concerns before any new regulations or compliance measures are implemented. Existing Canadian Grain Commission grading standards on fusarium should remain in place until this review is concluded.
The Wheat Growers would also ask that any standards be implemented in concert with the adoption of like standards in the United States, given the extent of the cross-border trade in grain, flour, and bakery products. To impose standards in Canada that are tighter than those in the U.S. would simply place our millers, and by extension Canadian farmers, at a competitive disadvantage.
Thank you for this opportunity to share our views with the committee today.
I'd like to thank the committee for having the National Farmers Union represented here. We represent 6,600 family farmers across the country and we work toward advocating farm policies that enhance farmers' economic power in the marketplace, promote environmental sustainability, and strengthen our rural communities.
We had a little background earlier on what fusarium is, but I'll gloss over that a bit more. It's also known as a scab, and it affects not only wheat but barley and other small grains in temperate and semi-tropical areas. Fusarium is a plant pathogen that has particularly serious implications for farmers, crops, livestock, and the general public. Scientific journals around the world are reporting increased fusarium damage in crops; it's not only happening in Canada. It wouldn't be inappropriate to compare this world-wide phenomenon with H1N1 or other pandemics that are spreading. It's something that everybody is going to have to deal with here.
We don't want to only look at what it is, but also how we can prevent it and lower the incidence of it within our crops. Once fusarium is in the soil, it's there for good. There's no getting rid of it, though there are various measures we can take to mitigate its effects on the crops. These kinds of things include tillage management, and residue management using tillage. The NFU has also seen public research from Canada come forward with information that shows there could be linkages between the use of glyphosate, which is a very popular herbicide in Canada, with the incidence of fusarium.
One of the main things we'd like to see come out of this would be more research into the area of this correlation. There's been a dearth of public research into this and is one of the things we're looking for most, particularly on the glyphosate issue. We feel that we need public research into this, because private research will probably have more to do with fungicides rather than actually addressing the root cause in the same way. As Mr. Hewson mentioned earlier, fungicides come with additional costs per acre as well and don't serve farmers that well.
We've been writing letters on this issue since 2003, looking for some answers and for some direction from the Government of Canada. At the same time, we're concerned about the tightening of standards on this issue, as the complications for farmers would arise there. As we already heard, the effects of the mycotoxin that develops, or is a consequence of fusarium, can really affect the bottom lines of farmers. The price of wheat can be downgraded by 40% if the grain is seriously affected by it.
The most obvious course of action would be to do more research on this. We haven't seen a whole lot of research done on this issue, particularly on glyphosate. We'd like to deal with it at the farm level and try to minimize it there. If we could get more information out to farmers on the possible effects of this, then I think we'd be headed in the right direction.
I'll just make one more point. The Farmers Union would like to see a suspension of further registration of glyphosate-resistant crops until the linkage is further understood and we see more research on this. We need a sober second thought on moving ahead with further registration of crops that could, in fact, be making this problem a lot worse for farmers.
I'll stop there.
We do apologize for not being there in person, the reason being that Mr. Mol and I are both farmers, and we're running about three weeks behind in our soybean harvest because of all the rain we've had in October. We could not take the chance of being away if today happened to be fine--which, of course, it isn't again.
Anyway, the reason we're doing a joint presentation is that the Island Grains and Protein Council is a full member of the Atlantic Grains Council, so we wanted to make the presentations together. David and I will be going back and forth as we go through this.
My name is Allan Ling. I'm a farmer from the central Queens area, and chairman of the Atlantic Grains Council. We grow a variety of crops on our farm, milling wheat being one of them. Of course, in the last two years, none of our wheat has made grade because of the DON-level fusarium head blight.
With us today is our executive director of the Atlantic Grains Council, Monique McTiernan. She is bilingual, so if there are any questions in French, that's fine. She's our executive director who works out of Moncton.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to present our case on this very important disease that has hit our region as well as other parts of Canada.
I'll just give you a little bit of history on the Atlantic Grains Council. It was incorporated back in 1984. Basically, it's the only regional voice to lobby and represent grain and oilseed producers in the region. The council is run for producers by producers. We're made up of some five full members and a bunch of associate members. We have been involved in a little bit of research and in the production and marketing of grain and oilseeds.
For the last 30 years, the council has been working together with farm members in building a strong grain and oilseed industry for the Maritimes. We take great pride in having redeveloped the milling wheat industry, which at one time in this region was quite stagnant—quite dead, actually—but has come back quite well. We have local mills, including Dover Mills in Halifax, with a capacity in excess of 100,000 tonnes a year, which we would like to be able to fill with a lot of our products.
Just to give you a bit of history of our milling wheat industy, you have to bear in mind that the Maritimes region is very small compared with Saskatchewan; but at the same time, it's very, very important to this region, to our industry, and to the economy of the region as well. Since the demise of the livestock industry in the Maritimes, particularly the last two or three years, producers have been looking at another crop to work into a rotation rather than, let's say, barley. So the milling wheat looked like a pretty good example. Thus our industry has grown from 2004 to 2009 by approximately 50%. We came from 14,400 acres up to in excess of 28,000 acres in 2009.
The problem we're facing now is that producers are going to be turning away because of the problems we've had in trying to make grade. One of the problems producers are facing is a bit of inconsistency in the testing of the finished product. We send a result or test, let's say, to the P.E.I. Grain Elevators Corporation, and then the same test could go to another company, and different results come back.
So we have some pretty major problems that we want to get to work on. The Atlantic Grains Council, we think, has been leading the way in that.
At this point I'm going to stop for a few minutes and turn it over to David, and I'll let David introduce himself.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. I appreciate the opportunity as well to make this presentation.
I'd also like to thank Mr. Smith for referring to our area as having a semi-tropical climate. We have yet to see that here, but it would help to dry my soybeans, I'm sure.
I have 35 years of pedigreed seed production, as well as a close relationship with the plant breeders in the area. I grow 1,500 to 1,600 acres, of which about 800 acres are in wheat. A cornerstone of my seed business is milling wheat. I'm also no stranger to fusarium head blight. In the mid-1980s, I had my storage quarantined by CFIA. At that time, it was a new problem. Standards were not well established, so with toxin levels above one parts per million, I had 700 tonnes held back. The following year, tests of Ontario wheat crops showed significant levels above the one parts per million level. Because a much larger amount of wheat was involved, a more in-depth analysis of the problem was made. The result of that analysis was that two parts per million were determined to be safe, and product flowed at that standard into the system.
Here we are today, 20 years later, with all the resources available to this great country, and we're still debating the issue. The reality is that science has not provided products to eradicate or adequately control these pathogens, particularly in a moist climate. Either that or we've not received the varieties that would be considered totally resistant.
This problem, as I see it, is part of a larger problem facing Canadians and world agriculture: climate change is forcing new environmental problems on our traditional cropping practices as well as more pressure on the existing varieties. We're going to have to be more versatile with types of crops. If we want to continue to grow wheat in eastern Canada—by which I mean parts of Manitoba east—then standards that are realistic yet safe should be established.
I am happy to see that this is receiving national attention. Only when we come up with standards will I be able, in my own operations, to plan future variety selection and investments.
Just last week, I had a friend over from Scotland who's intimately involved in the milling industry there. The EU is also having discussions about new standards. He told me that if the proposed standards were adopted, most of the milling industry in Scotland would disappear. So it's not a local problem. It seems to be a problem that is evolving in a lot of areas of wheat production, and we need to get down to business on it.
I'll turn it back to Allan.
As we move forward, we believe our best method of long-term control will be through variety breeding to develop new varieties that are resistant to some of the problems we face. However, we all know that this takes a long time.
We would like to acknowledge the work being conducted by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada across the country on this major national issue. The council strongly urges that this work continue and that it be strengthened significantly, with consideration given to regional variation in resistance and environmental conditions, to name two factors that may have an impact on disease suppression between regions. However, the council has monitored the erosion of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada support services in the Atlantic provinces. We have gone from having seven to ten scientists, with adequate technical support, working full time on grain and oilseed issues at our three research stations to having one scientist on site. Work is conducted only in Charlottetown. This issue has been brought to the attention of the by the council in the past.
Grower education is also key to fusarium head blight control. Growers are and have been using good seed, crop rotation, fungicide application, timely harvest, combine adjustment, and storage at safe moisture levels. However, the impact of each step is limited by weather conditions during the growing season that can have a significant impact on disease development, despite the use of good agricultural practices.
We also need to be on a level playing field with our American counterparts. We sometimes feel that we don't have the same crop protectants as the Americans. In this region, we certainly have to pay more for our crop protectants than they pay even in some places in this country.
The Atlantic Grains Council wants the regulatory authorities to recognize that the amount of fusarium head blight, as well as DON, that may be present in a particular crop is not directly under the influence of the grower. It is not intentionally or unintentionally introduced into the grain supply; it's a naturally occurring toxin.
The Canadian Grain Commission recognizes this and for this reason has established grades that limit the amount of fusarium head blight allowed in a particular grade. For example, in No. 1 Canada Eastern Red Spring wheat, the maximum of fusarium head blight is 1%. Grain grading is helpful in that it allows for the rapid assessment of wheat and allows the placing of wheat into various grades of known quality.
Increased concern on the part of the wheat processing industry concerning DON has significantly changed how wheat is handled in Atlantic Canada. While the levels of fusarium head blight and DON in the region have varied over the years, approximately eight of the last 30 years could be described as severe. What has changed in the last two years are the increasing requirements for DON testing that are in place. For wheat to be accepted for processing, the established cut-off line for DON is two parts per million. The council was not involved in any consulting concerning DON levels, so it can only speculate that the indication provided by Codex agreement to move to a 0.75 parts per million DON level in flour has influenced how regulatory authorities in Canada are approaching this issue.
As farmers, five years ago we hardly knew what the word vomitoxin meant, because it was all fusarium head blight. We looked visually at our wheat when it was taken to the elevators.
We understand that this is a very important health and safety issue for the general public, and under no circumstances are we suggesting raising the acceptable levels. But we have not seen any sound science to justify lowering the current levels of DON. These levels appear to have provided safe and healthy food to Canadians for many years. If Health Canada changes these levels, the bakers will change their contracts, which will force millers to do the same. This again will fall on our producers' shoulders. Grains will have to be destroyed or left in the field.
Our producers are just trying to make an honest living. Let's not pull the rug from underneath them. And I guess I would echo the wheat growers' idea that if any changes are to be made the whole industry be fully consulted and be able to participate in any changes that may be coming at us.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, the council would like to challenge you to hear from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency concerning their approach and intent on regulating DON in food. If there are any changes in levels of approach, the council would urge that such measures be in step with our major trading partner, the U.S.A., and emerge from a base not only of sound science but what is also practical in the real world of crop production, storage, and handling.
Mr. Chairman, AAFC has been a valuable partner and has played an immense role in the development of agriculture in the region. We want to see this continue. The Atlantic Grains Council, in conjunction with the Grain Growers of Canada, believes it is for the public good that work continue and are presently asking the federal government to double A-base research dollars for Agriculture Canada over the next ten years towards field crops. We urge the committee to ensure all those knowledgeable on the issues of fusarium head blight and DON are consulted and their views are developed into workable solutions.
The council appreciates the opportunity to make this presentation and hopes that by working together we can build a strong Atlantic agriculture industry for the benefit of the whole country.
I don't know if you could hear that last few minutes or not, but our TV went dead here.
They can't hear us in P.E.I., I guess. I had some questions for them.
To explain, what seems to have happened in the P.E.I. experience in this new crop is there was confusion with Dover Mills on the parts per million allowed. As a result, a lot of the crop wasn't even allowed to be used for feed, because the...for whatever agency, the regulators look that you might feed 100% wheat. Nobody feeds 100% wheat. They wouldn't look at the tolerances in the mix. So a lot of wheat has been dumped in gravel pits in P.E.I., and some of it, in fact, has gone to burners to be used for heat.
I think, Mr. Jamieson, you had mentioned that you're alarmed and concerned about the guidelines that do not exist.
Mr. Hewson, you noted that there's an apparent disconnect with the grading standards for milling wheat.
What I find here on all this, as we tried to check it out in P.E.I., is there seems to be a lot of confusion. You've got the Canadian Grain Commission that has a certain standard. You've CFIA that is imposing certain rules. You have the millers, and at the end of the line it's the farmers who are taking the brunt of it all. They're either dumping their wheat, they're getting a lower price, they're not able to sell it according to grade, or whatever.
So what I'm asking you is what has to happen here? I think we're all in agreement with the longer-term approach—we have to find resistant varieties, maybe new crop protection products, whatever. But what has to be done in the short term to take out, as Mr. Jamieson says, this lack of guidelines so that producers on the ground and millers are all dealing from the same rule book?
Producers and processors need clarity and a thorough examination of the health risks. The health risks that we're supposedly trying to address need to be explained in layman's terms that we can all understand. We certainly need to get it right the first time. We can't decide five years from now that we didn't get it right and stand the whole grain supply chain on its ear once again.
So the members of the Canada Grains Council, and others at the table here, have recommended a two-year delay in the adoption of guidelines for ochratoxin. We've also asked that Health Canada bring forward proposed guidelines for DON so the industry, the whole supply chain, can look at these together.
We need to have a reality check on whether we're dealing with an acute health risk or a chronic health risk. We understand it's a chronic, long-term dietary intake issue. I personally believe we have time to look at this rationally over a reasonable timeframe of 18 to 24 months. That has been our recommendation to Agriculture Canada and Health Canada. As I mentioned, they have accepted, in principle, terms of reference that will involve all of us here today plus many others, including research scientists and academics. So we need a fact-based examination of this.
The regulatory end point that regulators need in order to deal with human health and safety has to be achievable. We need to have guidelines that have the force of law so we know where we stand, guidelines that people can comply with so it's actually possible to comply. All of us are now dealing with an ad hoc compliance and enforcement approach. It's not possible to comply, and we've pointed that out.
We have an opportunity now to have a more rational discussion around that. But we need to have an end point that recognizes the limitations on producers, like the vagaries of weather and climate. We need a regulatory end point that recognizes that in the grain sector we need to blend grain in the handling and transportation system for many reasons; we need to blend grain in the milling process; and we need to blend grain in the feed manufacturing process. So we need to have a fundamental recognition of what goes on in agriculture for many reasons.
Lurking in the background is the European Union precedent set on prohibition of blending. If we try to go at this and include a general prohibition on blending, we're in serious trouble.
It is a pleasure to sit alongside my colleague André for the first time and to attend this meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. Trust me, I am very happy to be here, as today's topic is of interest to me.
I am a farmer, myself, a dairy producer in Rimouski, in eastern Quebec. I am glad to see farmers here standing up and talking about the fusarium problem, which is prevalent, even where I am from in eastern Quebec. I am a dairy farmer, and I produce barley and fodder for my livestock. Believe me, we have had a lot of problems because of fusarium in the past four or five years. Our animals have had health problems, which have cost our farm a lot of money.
As a farmer, I thought I was alone, the only one with this problem, but after talking with my neighbours in the area, I see that a lot of farmers are struggling with the same thing. It is encouraging to see that we can discuss it in a forum such as this one.
Mr. Smith, you talked about the issue with great emotion, and I fully understand. You represent some 4,000 farmers, is that right?
We do have processes in mind, and the processes are happening on several fronts.
The Canada Grains Council has a working group. It's a whole value-chain working group that includes producer organizations, handling and transportation, and the milling industry. ANAC is also a member of the Canada Grains Council.
We are hoping to provide, within a six-week timeframe, basic facts into CFIA's working group—which meets for the first time next Monday—on what we have in place today along the whole supply chain, what is being used today, what tools are available today, and what additional measures might we all possibly take in the short term to deal with this. That's one process.
CFIA has a process that is attempting to develop more information around where we are at risk: incidence geographically, levels, etc. They'll speak to that, I'm sure.
The third process is a new one. It is an industry-government working group that is modelled after one that has assisted Environment Canada in its regulatory responsibilities for many years. It is a very comprehensive working group. It will probably have 36 members on it and will take a whole supply chain approach. We're glad that it has been accepted. We've recommended timelines of about 18 to 21 months. That's very tight for all the work that needs to be done, but I think we'll all know a great deal more.
Our whole thrust, in all our communications to Health Canada and CFIA and ministers over the last 14 months, has been that we have to get this right and get it right the first time, and we have repeatedly identified the need to avoid punitive and unreasonable costs to farmers.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to compliment Mr. Valeriote on his increased knowledge. He sounds more and more like the agriculture critic from the opposition, so congratulations.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Brian Storseth: I would like to start out by thanking all the witnesses for coming forward. This is a very important issue, a growing issue, obviously, in western Canada, more and more so. And it's something I wish we could dedicate more than two and a half hours to.
For those of us who have done a lot of research on this, and obviously live in farm producing areas, it seems to me that....
Maybe I'll start with Mr. Harrison, or Mr. Jamieson, or Mr. Hewson; they could all answer this question.
I think it was Mr. Hewson who said it exactly right, that it's susceptible varieties plus increased humidity. The right conditions create more significant problems when it comes to fusarium.
Now, it seems to me that the answer to that--we may look at some of what may or may not be causing it--is more research and development into genetically modified crops and finding varieties that are less susceptible to this and stronger. That seems to be where our biggest gains have been over the last 10 to 15 years, and we should continue to push that avenue so we can continue to have better and stronger varieties.
Can I have your comments, perhaps starting with Mr. Hewson and moving this way?
I'll use that power wisely.
In terms of traditional wheat research and plant breeding—I'm not an expert on that either--you find a variety, whether it be a wild grass, whatever it is that shows resistance to fusarium, and you crossbreed it with existing varieties. It's a very haphazard approach. You're trying to get an end product that growers will want to grow, agronomically grow. Obviously if it has a terrible yield, then it doesn't matter if it's the most resistant to fusarium variety in the world; farmers won't grow it.
Where biotechnology offers solutions to that is in the ability to target specific genes and only switch them over, whereas if you're crossing, say, more of a grassy species with a milling wheat species, you may be getting all kinds of undesirable characteristics. Hopefully the process would be sped up because of the precision of only spreading the genetic characteristics you want.
I definitely feel it has a fit. Definitely private industry, different companies have certainly invested research into this, and there's more to come from that. Obviously there is the intransigence of a lot of our customers to buying genetically engineered wheat, and that has to be overcome before any of these varieties can be brought to bear because it's no use having wheat that you can't market.
Blair, do you have anything to add to that?
There was a request at the start, if you remember, to save a few minutes to discuss some business. Our next witnesses are scheduled for five o'clock. I would suggest that we release our witnesses, go right on to committee business, and be ready to go as close to five o'clock as we can. So we'll do that.
I'd like very much to thank our witnesses, all of you who are here in person and those who are here by video. It was great to have all of you here from Charlottetown.
Thanks very much. I'm sure that everybody found it very educational.
We'll move to committee business.
We have an order of sequence, which is the order in which they came in. I'm open to how you want to proceed.
I believe that the first motion on the schedule to be dealt with is Mr. Shipley's. I think the next one is....
My apologies. It is Mr. Atamanenko's, which deals with AgriFlex, then Mr. Shipley's, then Mr. Bellavance's, I believe.
No, it's Mr. Easter, then Mr. Bellavance, then Mr. Atamanenko.
How do you want to proceed?
Mr. Chair, I'd like to bring up the matter of the steering committee.
I think it's important that all members of this committee realize that the steering committee only provides advice to the main committee. As the main committee, we must review what the steering committee has submitted, and we must either accept it, amend it, change it, or whatever we want to do with it. I think we need to leave time to do this, and I don't think we're treating anything in a proper manner here, when we're basically chockablock at today's meeting with witnesses. Now we're trying to cram in some committee business on the side.
Mr. Chair, you've raised now the steering committee report, which we haven't looked at. I think we should just go back to witnesses. That's what today was scheduled for. Let's show due diligence and respect for the witnesses who have come, because what's going to end up happening is that we cut into witness time, when in fact today was scheduled for fusarium.
Let's complete our study on fusarium. If the committee wants to do committee business, let's schedule committee business and not try to do two or three things all at the same time, shuffling things around and ending up shunting our witnesses off to the side, when they've traveled to be here. They've prepared to be here.
Good afternoon, honourable members.
Given the time allotted for our discussions, we have elected to restrict this brief introduction to providing the honourable committee members with a brief overview on how Health Canada sets safety standards for contaminants, such as those naturally occurring toxins that have been discussed by the committee this afternoon, in foods that are destined for human consumption, and the way we operate in collaboration with the CFIA to protect Canadians' health vis-à-vis food contaminants.
Health Canada is the federal health authority that is responsible for establishing policies, setting standards, conducting health risk assessments in the context of food safety investigations, and providing advice and information on the safety and nutritional quality of foods available for sale in Canada. The department's role in setting food standards is driven by our mandate to ensure that the safety of the Canadian food supply is, and continues to be, a major contributor to protecting Canadians' health. Health Canada standards are the main reference for the enforcement and compliance activities undertaken by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Part of the work that is undertaken by Health Canada scientists is to ensure that chemical contaminants, including naturally occurring toxins, are not present in the food supply at levels that would pose an unacceptable risk to Canadians' health.
The procedures we follow are those of international authorities, namely, the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the World Health Organization. The procedures include three main components: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.
Risk assessments are conducted using all available scientific data, including epidemiological data, analytical and exposure data, and toxicological data. These assessments must be based on exposure scenarios, which, despite being hypothetical at times, are also as realistic as possible.
It is crucial to take into account the Canadian context in terms of the consumption patterns of all age groups. Where relevant, exposure estimates may also take into account population groups considered susceptible, especially children, infants, pregnant women and anyone who may be at high risk as a result of acute or chronic exposure, meaning long term. These estimates may take into account cumulative and/or combined adverse health effects, as well.
As a result of these science-based assessments, various types of risk management activities can be used to protect Canadian consumers from potentially high levels of contaminants in food. These may include corrective action at various stages of the food production process, including at the farm level, the removal of certain products from the retail market, or, if required, the development of maximum levels for a contaminant or a toxin in a specific food.
Such maximum levels are developed for those foods that are considered to be significant contributors to total exposure to the consumer for that specific contaminant. These levels are also considered as systematic references for enforcement actions undertaken by the CFIA.
Now, if it's concluded that the development of maximum levels or standards is the most appropriate risk management strategy, then a number of steps must be followed. Those steps include the scientific assessment of the risk to human health that focuses on the Canadian context, the assessment of the impacts of the proposed standards on the food supply chain, including the farming community, broad consultation with industry and other stakeholders, and also consideration of trade implications based on Canada's international commitments.
It should be noted that, like other food regulatory agencies around the world, Health Canada has not established maximum levels for all contaminants, or, if you will, for every combination of a contaminant in a food commodity. The absence of a standard or the absence of a maximum level does not, however, mean a lack of oversight or a lack of accountability. Similarly, the absence of a maximum level or a guideline does not imply either a zero tolerance or that a standard from another country should be applied.
In the case where there is no established maximum level or a standard, the results of regular inspection and surveillance activities conducted by the CFIA are provided to Health Canada scientists for assessment. This is particularly important if these results indicate elevated levels of a particular contaminant in a specific food commodity, which immediately triggers an evaluation to assess the potential risk for the case in question.
It is important also to note that the approach used in these risk assessments is not arbitrary but also follows internationally established processes. The outcomes of these assessments guide the development of the appropriate risk management measures to be followed by the CFIA, under the authority of the Food and Drugs Act.
We would be happy to answer any questions that the honourable committee members may have on how these processes are followed with respect to managing risks to human health associated with some of the natural toxins that were brought before the committee today, like ochratoxin A or deoxynivalenol.
I'll turn it over to my colleague from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for his introduction.
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, my name is Robert Charlebois, and I am the Executive Director of Food Safety and Consumer Protection at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
I just want to take a few minutes to explain to the committee what fusarium toxins are and why we test for them. I will also let you know what the allowable limits are for these toxins as there are different thresholds depending on what the end product is to be used for. Finally, I will try briefly to bring some clarity to the recent report in La Presse about grain being rejected in Prince Edward Island.
Deoxynivalenol, or DON, commonly referred to as vomitoxin, is a toxin, as we heard, that may occur in a variety of grains--wheat, for sure, but barley, oats, rye, and maize. It could develop in humid and warm conditions during the flowering season.
Health Canada, as we just heard, sets the standard for food safety in Canada, so they have set the allowable threshold for these toxins in food. Current guidelines permit a maximum of two parts per million of vomitoxin or DON in uncleaned soft wheat. So that's the current guideline set by Health Canada. That type of soft wheat is used for the manufacture of food products such as cake, cookies, biscuits, and cereals.
The threshold for using infant food, however, is lower, at one part per million. These standards have been in place for more than 20 years and have not changed recently.
For grain intended for feed, this is a bit different: CFIA sets the level. Current action levels for vomitoxins are at one part per million in complete feed for the diets of swine, young calves, and lactating dairy animals, and five parts per million in complete feed for cattle and poultry because they are more resistant. These standards have not changed for over a decade as well.
Levels of these toxins are monitored by the CFIA because they can cause serious health problems in humans and animals when ingested, even at very low levels, specifically, parts per billion to parts per million. In humans, DON and other mycotoxins can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, severe hemorrhaging, immune suppression and even cancer. The effects on livestock can include feed refusal, vomiting, impaired reproductive function, reduced fertility, lung disease, cancer and, in some cases, even death.
The CFIA conducts targeted inspections and sampling at the milling level if the grain is intended for human consumption. Compliance levels are typically high. For feed, the CFIA has tested for these types of toxins and mycotoxins for many years, including random and targeted sampling.
I have been describing the regulatory limits for these toxins and inspector programs for soft wheat. For hard wheat, Health Canada has not yet established a regulatory standard or limit for the presence of DON or vomitoxin. Thus, the levels of 2 ppm and 1 ppm are for soft wheat.
Given the potential health risk of vomitoxin, the CFIA is conducting monitoring, albeit limited, for this contaminant in hard wheat. This is done in accordance with section 4 of the Food and Drugs Act, which presents a general prohibition on the sale of unsafe food. Even where no specific standard or guideline has been established by Health Canada, section 4 of the Food and Drugs Act must be taken into account.
Where vomitoxin is present in a sample, these results are submitted to Health Canada for a health risk assessment. Based on that assessment, CFIA will consider enforcement action--where warranted only, for sure. That is the general approach that we're using.
To go back to the P.E.I. issue, recently some articles were published in the media that CFIA had suddenly changed the threshold for these toxins. This is not accurate. As I mentioned earlier, the standard for food is not set by CFIA. The soft wheat standard is established by Health Canada and it has not changed. Nor did CFIA change the allowable limits for these toxins in animal feed. We have not been engaged in any recent enforcement actions related to this risk in Prince Edward Island.
I also want to make it clear that, contrary to media reports, CFIA did not instruct mills to refuse wheat from P.E.I. farmers. The more recent report suggests there was a miscommunication from the wheat buyer that led producers to believe they would have to meet higher or altered standards than the ones set by Health Canada or the CFIA in the case of feed. The error was acknowledged at a later date.
The Canadian government's policies around vomitoxin are all established in the international context of shared sound science. Canada actively participates in the work done by the Codex Alimentarius Commission on additives and contaminants, which puts a focus on vomitoxin.
This body is responsible for developing the code of practice for the prevention of mycotoxin contamination in cereals. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is an international body established under the joint auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. It develops food standards, international guidelines and texts, such as the code of practice I just mentioned.
Canada's participation in such bodies is consistent with the high priority the Government of Canada places on protecting the health of consumers. Monitoring for vomitoxin is an important element of our overall food safety program.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I would be happy to answer any questions the committee may have for me.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. It is a privilege for me to be in front of you again today.
I have a very good ten-minute presentation, but I'm not going to give it to you today. You have a handout that highlights some of the Canadian Grain Commission's activities in fusarium and fusarium-damaged kernels as well as some of the history of fusarium infection in both eastern and western Canada.
I would like to take a couple of minutes to highlight a couple of points from that handout. Then Norm and I would be happy to answer your questions.
First, I'd like to emphasize that grain safety is part of the Canadian Grain Commission's mandate, along with the requirement or mandate on maintain grain quality and grain quality assurance.
You will see in your handout some tables that show the fusarium tolerances for both eastern and western wheat and how those tolerances have changed over time.
Since about 1980, the Canadian Grain Commission has employed the grading system to manage the flow of DON, which appeared in eastern Canada in the early eighties, into the food and feed chain. These tolerances started out very tight, but as the understanding of the relationship between DON and fusarium-damaged kernels grew, we were able to relax those tolerances.
I'd also like to highlight that we do not arbitrarily set the tolerances for fusarium-damaged kernels in the grading system. These are set in consultation with the eastern and western standards committees. These committees include all parts of the value chain, from farmers to processors; they also include the scientific input from the Grain Research Laboratory. So the standards that are set and reviewed over time are science-based and arrived at through consultations with people representing the entire value chain.
We have some interesting information on the history of our findings on DON. It's important to note that the grading system has been effective in managing the flow of DON into the system. Also important is some of the ongoing research. I know some of the previous witnesses have remarked on the need to move to DON-testing at the elevator or on the farmer's field. That is something we are actively working on.
Currently, the reason we use fusarium-damaged kernels in the grading system instead of DON is that the required tests simply take too long to be practical at the elevator or on the farm. These tests can take up to an hour to perform. But we are actively working with the industry and with private companies to evaluate equipment, with the goal of introducing DON tests on the driveway.
We also continue to work with the international community. The Grain Research Laboratory continues to work with the international scientific community on understanding the relationship between fusarium-damaged kernels and DON. These relationships might be changing over time, along with some of the types of fusarium infection. The relationship between DON and fusarium-damaged kernels is something our Grain Research Laboratory places a great deal of emphasis on.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the work we're doing with farm groups. We're happy to be able to work with the Atlantic Grains Council. Allan has mentioned problems on differences or variations in different tests from labs, and we're working to resolve some of those issues. We're also working with farm groups in Ontario to develop new scientific equipment.
That is a short version of my ten-minute speech. Norm and I will be happy to answer any questions that you might have.
Thank you, honourable member.
The discrepancy with other standards does not really present itself in terms of violations of international agreements. Our work at Health Canada is to ensure that the standards that are in place are protective to human health. As was mentioned by previous witnesses, we have in effect two standards, the two parts per million for soft wheat and the one part per million for, again, soft wheat, destined for essentially baby foods.
Those standards, as was mentioned, are actually under review simply because they were set a number of years ago, over 20 years ago. We have new scientific evidence that is at hand for Health Canada scientists. The scientific evidence that is available both on the hazards associated with this toxin and also on the level of occurrence of the toxins in the Canadian food supply warrants such evaluation. The evaluation is actually right now under way, and that's what Health Canada, right now, has committed to doing as part of its program on microtoxins. We have, right now, a plan to complete the scientific evaluation during the course of 2010, and at that point we will be able to make a recommendation on whether the standards that were previously set are adequate and if essentially additional standards may be warranted for other food commodities—because again, those standards cover only two commodities, or a very narrow number of food products. That's what the assessment will help us determine.
In the meantime, when there is no standard, the previous explanation that I have provided to the committee on how we manage collectively with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, any type of health risk that may be inherent to the presence of contaminants, including natural toxins, that type of process would apply.