The report serves as a warning to US importers about their relationships with Canada's food processors. Some have been barred from exporting to the US due the a failure to implement proper testing systems. A safety problem in an exported product or ingredient from Canada could lead to costly product recalls and a damage to brand image.
The report faults the US' Food Safety and Inspection Service for allowing Canadian food imports into the country even though its experts warned two years ago that public health was at risk. The agency's executives refused to limit shipments from Canada despite the warnings.
The report, by the Agriculture Department's inspector general, found three major problems with Canada's food safety inspections system. The report found that Canada does not require daily inspections at processing plants. The system also lacks adequate sanitation controls and does not require sampling of ready-to-eat products for listeria.
Canadian officials have said that the country is in the process of fixing the problems. Daily inspections have been underway since late summer. Listeria testing and sanitation controls are being changed to meet US standards.
Daily inspections are required at US processing plants. US law also requires countries that export to the US to have equivalent inspections systems. The US halted imports from Australia in June 2004 and Belgium in 2003 because those countries didn't have daily inspections.
In a November 2003 memo to then agriculture secretary Ann Veneman, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service warned that public health may be compromised if the agency did not respond immediately to deficiencies in Canada's system.
"We found FSIS did not timely address these serious concerns," the inspector general said.
For example, in July 2003, the FSIS identified that Canadian inspection officials were not enforcing certain pathogen reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system regulations.
The same types of concerns were identified again in June 2005, almost two years later.
"Timely actions were not taken because FSIS does not have protocols or guidelines for evaluating deficiencies in a country's inspection system that could jeopardize a country's overall equivalence determination," the report stated. "In addition, FSIS did not institute compensating control, for example increased port-of-entry testing, to ensure that public health was not compromised while deficiencies were present."
During the period about 4bn pounds of meat and poultry products from Canada were shipped for sale in the US. The products were categorized as cuts and trimmings of raw product as well as products with additional processing from pork, veal, beef, poultry, and lamb.
"These products were produced and allowed to be exported to the US even though FSIS officials questioned the equivalence of the Canadian inspection," the report found.
The FSIS said it would make a final decision on Canada in 2007. In the interim, FSIS has agreed to implement measures that the agency believes will ensure there is no increased risk to the public health in the US.
The measures include doubling the sampling of Canadian shipments and increasing the presence of Canadian inspection officials in processing establishments exporting to the US.
On November 14, 2005, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency implemented a Listeria monocytogenes testing program for ready-to-eat meat and poultry products exported to the US.
The Listeria monocytogenes testing program parallels what is currently being done by FSIS for ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, the report found.
The inspector general called on the FSIS to evaluate the program to determine whether it is in fact equivalent to that of the US system.