It's a pleasure to participate in our first virtual meeting. I think the last time we met, we didn't expect to see each other this way. I'm glad to see you all, even if it's remotely.
I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number seven of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. Pursuant to the orders of reference of April 11 and April 29, 2020, the committee is meeting for the sole purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order of reference of April 11 also stipulates that only motions requesting or scheduling specific witnesses can be considered by the committee and that such motions shall be decided by way of a recorded vote. As you know, today's meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. So that you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee. In order to facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I will outline a few rules to follow.
First, interpretation in this video will work very much as in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either floor, English or French. When you intervene, please make sure that your language channel is set to the language you intend to speak, not the floor. This ensures the best sound quality possible for our interpreters, which is very important.
Also, before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can either click on the microphone icon to activate your mike or you can hold down the space bar on your laptop or computer while you are speaking. When you release the bar, your mike will mute itself, just like a walkie-talkie, or for truckers, a CB radio.
I would also like to remind you that all members and witnesses should direct their comments to the chair. Members who need to ask for the floor when it's not their turn to ask questions should activate their microphones and declare a point of order. If a member wishes to speak in response to a point of order raised by another member, he or she must use the "raise your hand" function. By doing so, they will signal to the chair that they wish to speak. To do so, please click on "participant" at the bottom of the screen. When the list appears, you will see next to your name that you can click on "raise your hand".
Speak slowly and clearly, and make sure your microphone is off when you are not speaking. As you know, we strongly encourage you to use a headset. If your headset has a microphone that hangs down, make sure it doesn't rub against your shirt during your speaking time.
In the event of technical difficulties, if you have difficulty hearing the interpretation or have been disconnected by accident, inform the chair or the clerk immediately and the technical team will try to resolve the problem. Please note that we may have to suspend work during that time to ensure that all members can participate fully.
Can all participants click on the top right side of their screen to ensure that they have an overview? This way you should be able to see all participants in a grid. This way, all participants will be able to see each other.
I don't know if everyone's had a chance to do it, but we should be able to see everyone. We should see one person in every little square. It should stay that way, so we know everyone is there.
Finally, just as we usually would in a regular meeting, we will suspend in between panels or sections of the agenda. There are a great deal of resources involved in the holding of virtual meetings so because of that the start and end times are currently set by the whip of all recognized parties, in consultation with the House of Commons administration. I will therefore ensure that the committee meets and finishes on time especially when there are other committee meetings following our own.
With that, we are ready to begin. I would like now to welcome our witnesses for this meeting.
For today's meeting we have from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Mr. Chris Forbes, deputy minister. Welcome to our committee, Mr. Forbes.
Also from the Department of Agriculture we have Frédéric Seppey, assistant deputy minister, market and industry services branch. Welcome, Mr. Seppey.
From the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we have Colleen Barnes, vice-president, policy and programs. Welcome, Ms. Barnes.
I would remind members that the complete sitting will be in public. There's no mechanism to sit in camera yet in virtual meetings. Even though we might cover some business at the end, everything will be in public.
Let's go to our witnesses. We'll start with Mr. Forbes for 10 minutes.
I'd like to thank you all for your invitation. It is a pleasure to join you virtually. I was also present, along with the minister, at the committee's last meeting on March 12.
We are here today to talk to you about the Government of Canada's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has implications for our agri-food system, of course.
The pandemic has profoundly affected the sector and the entire food supply chain, from farm to grocery store. While our supply chain continues to function and adapt, the consequences are major.
Of course, there are positive aspects, such as the fact that the transport system works very well, which allows us to deliver our agricultural products on time, and the fact that the borders have remained open. This has helped us a lot in terms of exports and imports.
However, the almost complete closure of the hotel and restaurant sectors has had a considerable impact on the entire supply chain. Many farms now have a surplus of products that are not easy to get to consumers.
Moreover, COVID-19 is still causing labour shortages throughout the agri-food system, both on the producer and processor side and for organizations that provide food to the most vulnerable people.
Meat processing plants have been a prime example of this in recent weeks. Many have had to shut down temporarily or slow down their production.
These delays are severely impacting the cattle and hog sectors, increasing costs for producers as they need to keep their animals longer on farms, while prices are changing rapidly.
One important step we have taken so far was providing federal guidance to recognize the food supply chain as an essential service, to reinforce that vital work from production and processing through to distribution and sales of food must continue across the country.
We have also lifted travel restrictions on incoming temporary foreign workers and offered $50 million in funding to help employers cover the costs of quarantine for those workers. Over 11,200 workers have arrived since the travel ban was lifted, compared to about 13,000 at this time last year.
At the same time, efforts are under way to reach out to all Canadians who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, to consider the many opportunities to work in the agriculture and agri-food industry. My department has launched a jobs portal, we have a social media campaign urging Canadians to consider job opportunities in the food industry, and we are complementing the efforts by provincial governments to match unemployed residents with food sector jobs. To support our workers on the front lines, the government has also worked with the provinces and territories to offer a top-up to the wages of low-income essential workers.
On the side of financial tools and support to help farmers and food businesses navigate the stresses resulting from COVID-19, a range of financial measures have been put in place. Perhaps first and foremost was the $5 billion in new lending capacity to Farm Credit Canada, FCC, to help farmers and businesses keep their businesses strong during the pandemic and to help with cash flow. To date, over $3 billion worth of loans has been deferred with FCC.
The government also extended the payment deadline for the advance payments program for those who had a repayment deadline before the end of April. As well, we've extended the AgriStability program enrolment deadline to July 3 to encourage more farmers, producers and ranchers to manage the impact of current market disruptions, increased expenses and production challenges.
There are broader measures available to businesses, such as access to interest-free loans of up to $40,000, with $10,000 of that amount forgivable, and items such as deferral of income tax payments, as well as GST, HST and customs duties.
Specific to the agriculture and food sector, the government has also announced $20 million to help the Canadian Food Inspection Agency hire, train and equip additional staff, which has meant more capacity to accommodate overtime and extra shifts. This funding is also supporting the sharing of inspection resources between provincially and federally inspected processing facilities, which is the case currently in Alberta.
Another area of significant activity has been in terms of food banks and community supports. Across the country, food banks and community food organizations have been forced to change the way they work. They've had to find new volunteers, certainly minimize interpersonal contact and offer more home deliveries, all this while serving a growing number of Canadians. As part of the response, the government has directed $100 million to support food banks and other organizations on the front lines. The funds that have been distributed can be used to purchase, support and distribute food, hire temporary help to fill volunteer shortages and implement biosecurity measures, such as purchase of personal protective equipment.
As we've gone through this process, we have tried to keep in very close contact with industry representatives to make sure we understand developments as they happen. We've engaged with industry representatives through daily calls, five times a week, led by my colleague, Mr. Seppey, which have included about 500 participants, usually from the sector. This has allowed us to be aware of developments in real time, but also to communicate a range of government activities directly to the sector.
We're also working with the provinces and territories, obviously quite closely, meeting our colleagues there to make sure we're aligning programming and understanding their pressures. We've had specific working groups with the meat and poultry industries to understand and address some of their challenges.
I'll finish with some comments or a summary of today's announcements around the agriculture and food sector.
I think the chair and members are all aware the announced a number of measures this morning that totalled about $250 million in financial support for producers and processors, first of all, most notably, some additional support for programs under the business risk management, BRM, suite and some for businesses as well.
On the programming side, the BRM side, the government has launched an initiative of up to $125 million nationally under the AgriRecovery program, which is joint with the provinces, with the first steps being programs focused on cattle and pork producers to help them with costs such as feeding animals longer on site and in the case of hogs, if it comes to that, the unfortunate case of having to do humane depopulation.
In the AgriRecovery program we are committing to have the program cover 90% of eligible expenses, which is up from the normal 70%. It's normally a 60:40 cost share with the provinces. We will put up our 60%, and if the provinces have funds to add their 40% they can, but if not, we would still proceed.
We're also working with the provinces and territories to see if we can get the absence or the shortage of workers to become an eligible risk under the AgriInsurance program, which would be helpful for those worried about crops not being harvested in the fall due to a shortage of workers. These are on top of the existing risk management programs, obviously, which pay out about $1.6 billion annually to producers.
Today there was an announcement around a program for our food processors, providing a total of $77.5 million to help them adapt to new circumstances related to managing COVID-19, and also to ensure continued food production and potentially increase food production in Canada.
I have two final points related to surplus food, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks. There is a new program of $50 million to help purchase some of the surplus food that exists in Canada to help direct that to those most vulnerable Canadians who need it. There is a proposal to work with Parliament to increase the borrowing limit of the Canadian Dairy Commission, which would allow it to better manage current milk supply imbalances by storing additional amounts of butter and cheese for dairy producers.
Mr. Chair, that's my summary of what has happened so far in the government response. Along with my colleagues, I am certainly happy to take any questions from the members.
I'll start in English and finish in French.
Mr. Chair, thank you very much for this opportunity to participate in this virtual meeting of the standing committee. I appreciate the chance to share my perspectives as part of the committee’s study of the government’s response to COVID-19.
During this difficult time, CFIA is taking action to preserve the integrity of Canada's food safety system while safeguarding its animal and plant resource base. In doing so, CFIA is committed to protecting the health and safety of its employees, while maintaining these critical inspection services. Every day we work to understand the concerns of industry and consumers with respect to COVID-19 and the unprecedented impact around the globe on businesses, economies and people.
To address these extraordinary challenges that Canadian consumers and industry are facing, CFIA is prioritizing critically important activities and services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic situation by introducing a temporary suspension of low-risk activities that do not immediately impact the safety of food or the protection of our agricultural resources. The agency will maintain appropriate oversight of domestic and imported food products to meet that objective while also supporting trade and the supply chain, including through the certification of exports.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we are prioritizing the following activities: food safety investigations and recalls; animal disease investigations, if warranted; regulated inspection services, for example, what we do in meat slaughter establishments; export certification; import services; emergency management, if required, and laboratory diagnostics that support those activities.
CFIA will continue to examine its requirements to determine where further flexibility can be helpful. For example, the agency is temporarily suspending certain non-food safety labelling requirements for food service products so that they can be quickly repurposed for retail to consumers. This temporary measure will aim to ease potential food shortages in the Canadian retail sector, prevent food waste and support Canada’s economy without compromising food safety. Also, in the event of meat shortages, we are working with the provinces and territories to enable the interprovincial trade of meat produced in provincially regulated establishments.
Notwithstanding this flexibility, industry remains responsible for the safety and the quality of the food that it produces, imports and exports. Despite the current pandemic situation, the CFIA will continue to exercise its enforcement discretion as appropriate.
This evolving situation highlights the importance of continued collaboration and communication between the CFIA, industry, and its other stakeholders and partners. To assist in these efforts, as Deputy Minister Forbes has mentioned, the CFIA was very pleased to hear the Government of Canada’s announcement of $20 million for the agency to help it to continue its important work.
With this additional funding, the CFIA will be reassigning staff to areas of high priority and providing them with necessary training and tools; increasing the number of inspectors by hiring new staff or temporarily bringing back those CFIA employees who have recently retired; hiring more veterinarians to provide inspection in industries like meat slaughter; funding more overtime hours to help support longer production hours of industry; equipping inspectors with digital tools and tablets and access to the CFIA’s remote service delivery network; developing agreements, as Deputy Minister Forbes mentioned, with the provinces to train and equip some provincial inspectors so they can provide assistance to the CFIA on a temporary basis as needed; and continuing work with international trading partners to support exports, Canada’s jobs and economy.
These efforts will help uphold the Government of Canada’s commitment to safe food for Canadians and support the sector at the same time.
We are working closely with the industry to keep establishments operating. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, has developed guidance for establishments.
All facilities should follow appropriate public health protocols and seek guidance from local public health authorities.
The CFIA takes this evolving situation very seriously and has advised all employees that they have a duty to follow the guidance of health authorities to protect public health. We have also asked employees to follow the health and safety protocols put in place by the facilities in which they work.
CFIA is working closely with establishments to determine what capacity is required to ensure food safety and prevent pressures on the meat supply. To date, we continue to maintain the appropriate number of inspectors in meat processing establishments. We have a plan in place to address potential inspector absenteeism and an escalation process is in place with industry should issues arise.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate the important role that CFIA inspectors have in keeping Canada’s food supply safe. We will continue to work diligently to ensure the safety of the food made available to Canadians.
Mr. Chair, I am happy to address any questions posed by members of the committee.
We have a number of mechanisms, some of which have been established for a long period of time with the industry.
As soon as we went into crisis mode, we organized daily calls with the industry. At times there are more than 500 representatives from all over the agriculture and agri-food sector, including food banks, small farmers, the National Farmers Union, etc. That's our primary vehicle. We also have regular emails and are proactively sending information to our distribution list of more than 1,500 participants.
In addition, as the deputy minister indicated previously, for certain big value chains that have specific issues—I am thinking of the meat sector—we have established working groups. They meet regularly to discuss in detail, with decision-makers in the government, such as public servants, the specific issues and look at how we can address specific bottlenecks. For example, my colleague Ms. Barnes, from CFIA, was active in these working groups when there were problems with the number of CFIA inspectors available to work at certain plants. These issues were escalated and quickly fixed in collaboration with the industry.
These are just a few examples.
I want to thank the witnesses for staying a little longer. This gives us the opportunity to have a second round.
I'll confess my disappointment. As result of the skilful questions asked by Mr. Soroka and Ms. Rood, I learned that new money wasn't put into the AgriRecovery program. In the details provided to Mr. Seppey regarding the Canadian Dairy Commission, I learned that the credit capacity may be increased to $500 million, whereas the proposals were to increase the capacity to $800 million. I don't know whether this will be different. You can tell me. It seems very difficult to put new money into agriculture and to support the agricultural sector, which is really the foundation of everything.
Here's my question. Is compensation for supply-managed sectors being considered? This doesn't involve new spending. This money was promised. The amounts are established. The dairy farmers could receive payments for 2020-21. It's easy. Cheques can simply be issued.
All the other supply-managed sectors have shared their requests and specific circumstances. They want investment programs, and so on. This seems to be a good time to invest new money in farms. As Ms. Rood said earlier, farmers need financial assistance, and not more debt, which is already huge.
I don't know who wants to respond. Mr. Seppey can talk about compensation for supply-managed sectors.
I think we're all here.
I would remind people that we are in public. I'm not insinuating that you don't behave responsibly when we're not, but we are still in public because we cannot go in camera with this app.
We want to plan for the next couple of meetings. We tried to get a bunch of names of witnesses from organizations. I believe you all submitted them. If I can get clarification from the clerk, I think the whole list of witnesses that was submitted by every party was sent to all of you.
We need to decide a couple of things.
As for the panel itself, usually we have two full hours. Is it the wish of the committee to separate that into two different panels?
I think three maximum per panel would be as much as we could do with all the little breaks we get along the way for technical issues.
I'll finish by saying we have been told we can meet at least once a week. If we meet twice a week on Fridays and Tuesdays....
We also wanted a deadline for submitting new witnesses. That deadline would be May 7, which is Thursday, at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Having said that, we may need to get a new round of witnesses. We don't know how long this study will last. If you could submit all the witnesses before Thursday, that would be great. It would help the analysts prepare the list.
If it's okay, we'll use the same formula as we did in our first study where we go with the percentage of the House: 50% Liberal Party, 30% Conservative Party, 10% Bloc and 10% NDP, give or take a few. That gives an idea for the clerk to prepare the lists of witnesses.
That's about all I have to say. I can take some comments, suggestions or questions from the floor.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'm kind of echoing what Monsieur Perron said. We've already submitted our witness list, so it's tough to prioritize ones who have been....
To Francis' comment, I think it's pretty tough for us not to have CFA, horticulture, the cattlemen, the pork council or the meat council at the agriculture committee, as they may be bringing up issues that are more focused on agriculture programs or issues, where, if they were at the finance or industry committees, they may have taken a different approach. Many of us on the ag committee were not on those committees, and we have not had the opportunity to ask questions that we may feel are more ag specific or in more of an ag direction.
I agree to a little point. There may be some who don't have a specific ag focus who we don't have to prioritize, but I think our main stakeholder groups would be.... It would be incorrect for us not to have them as big priorities as part of this committee.
My second point, Mr. Chair, is that I'm wondering if there's any will among our members to put some sort of timeline on this. The only reason I say this is that, unlike a lot of other industries, time is of the essence when it comes to agriculture as we're going through the spring seeding right now, and producers are trying to get yearlings into the auction marts. The set-aside does not work for the hog industry, as was raised today, as Mr. Forbes said. We want the set-aside for the pork industry, but it doesn't work for pork.
I think there are some time issues that we need to be focused on, so it's not clear to me, Mr. Chair, and maybe you can clarify how this is going to work. Are we meeting indefinitely and just talking about COVID issues in agriculture, which obviously is what we're here for, or are we saying that, maybe in two or three weeks, we develop some sort of list of recommendations that we would pass on to the minister?
I do think time is working against the agriculture industry right now in terms of some of the things they are facing.
Maybe, Mr. Chair, you could provide some direction on the timelines here or what's really expected of us. Would that be okay?
Yes. Thank you, Mr. Chair. I certainly appreciate it.
I have just a couple of housekeeping notes, more than anything.
First, as far as timing is concerned, you mentioned Tuesdays and Fridays. I think the schedule is being determined by the whip's office, but do you know when we would regularly meet per week?
Second, around themes, I think you're spot on. We need to have some direction if we want to analyze the measures we've announced as a government today and take a look at their benefits and what it means to the industry.
To the point on the other different committees, I listened in on INDU last night and it sounded a lot like what I would assume this committee would sound like. It was very agriculturally focused. If it's the will of this committee to continue to bring those same witnesses, so be it, but to Mr. Drouin's point, I do think there's an opportunity to hear from some different folks who perhaps all parties have not had the chance to bring forward through this committee.
There's a lot of duplication going on right now. We have to ask ourselves as a committee what our role is, especially recognizing that I believe it's only until May 25 that we're scheduled or permitted to meet at this point.
My concern is times and themes. Can we confirm that we only really have a mandate until May 25?
This is a new experience for everyone today.
I want to specify one thing.
If we want the minister to come in, we would have to send an invitation to the minister to officially bring her in.
Is it the will of the committee to send an invitation to the minister to appear?
Some hon. members: Agreed.
The Chair: We're all good on that. We will send an invitation to the minister, and as soon as we know when, we'll certainly circulate it to all the members.
Just to be clear, we wanted to have a list for the clerk to invite people. That's why we said to send us your top five right now, and then for Thursday we want everyone to dig deeper and send another list. You can send as many as you want, but we'd like to have another more comprehensive list for Thursday just to make sure that everybody's got that.
Are there any other questions or comments?
Mr. Barlow, go ahead.