The challenges for local and sustainable producers and processors

There i s significant debate about how the food safety system affects the transition to sustainable food systems.  In earlier periods, as sustainable approaches were emerging, it was clear that some rules around animal health, pesticides, and processing aids directly created difficulties for sustainable operations (MacRae, 1991).  Now the problems are somewhat more indirect, but still significant.

Laforge, J. M. L., Anderson, C. R., & McLachlan, S. M. (2017). Governments, grassroots, and the struggle for local food systems: containing, coopting, contesting and collaborating. Agriculture and Human Values, 34(3).

McMahon, M. (2009). Standard fare or fairer standards: Feminist reflections on agri-food governance. Agriculture and Human Values, 28(3), 401–412.

Miewald, C., Hodgson, S., & Ostry, A. (2015). Tracing the unintended consequences of food safety regulations for community food security and sustainability: Small-scale meat processing in British Columbia. Local Environment, 20(2), 237–255.

The food safety system is designed to facilitate international trade

Our constitution gives authority to the federal government for trade and commerce across provincial and national borders (see Instruments, Constitutional provisions).  The federal preoccupation is, consequently, with export and import, and making Canadian goods acceptable in international markets.  "Given the importance of international markets, it is not surprising that the Canadian food safety framework is informed by international principles" (Latuskie and Shelley, 2019: 185).

Much of the international system revolves around HACCP, codified in rules set down by Codex Alimentarius and the WTO (see Goal 10).  This codification has consequences.

" .... the emphasis on harmonization of global food standards and consensus around scientific evidence has slowly undermined the authority of states to regulate food systems according to local preferences, or to incorporate non-scientific perspectives about what constitutes good food into domestic laws." (Berger-Richardson, 2019: 216).

A very significant focus of the new SFCA is export and import. It's 3 purposes are: a) to better protect consumers; b) to enhance international market opportunities; c) to be more consistent in the treatment of imported regulated commodities.

The rise of global retailers as arbiters of food safety is also part of this process.  These large retailers use private standards, such as EurepGAP, to force suppliers to comply with their food safety rules, many of which are essentially liability transfers from retailers to suppliers (see Campbell, 2002; Campbell et al., 2006).  Typically such standards are difficult for smaller firms to meet.

This focus on international trade is not neutral for the domestic economy. The federal government pays little attention to import minimization.  This can be seen in the general trend of imports and exports, where the rate of increase in imports over the last 25 years is greater than the rate of increase in exports (AAFC, 2015).  At the level of the firm, less attention is paid to  domestic markest, since investments have been made to meet export requirements.  Domestic market infrastructure suffers (see for example ERL et al., 2015). So, small enterprises (and sustainable ones are often in this category) are frequently compromised by their domestic focus and can not scale up to meet export requirements (see below).

The related problem is that international trade means distance between production and consumption. Distance and duration mean new niches for disease development as exposures can increase, incubation times are longer, more mistakes are possible, and control measures that work over short distances sometimes fail over longer ones (see Waltner-Toews, 1992).  Even when such contamination is caught before it is consumed, significant food waste is often the result (see Goal 5).  International trade also creates new pathways for invasive species, some of which are disease organisms and the federal government acknowledges that it is more challenging to keep out invasive species because of the growth in trade (IAS strategy)

The food system is designed around scale (adapted from MacRae and Alden, 2002)

Admittedly, definitions and questions of scale are complex and contested, but there is an argument in the sustainable transitions literature that increasing scale, especially approaching the global scale, imposes constraints on the evolution of sustainable systems because of different political, economic and socio-cultural characteristics associated with different scales (cf. Ramiller and Schmidt, 2018).

Although regulators insist that food safety policies and regulations are scale neutral (which is conceptually unlikely), and the SFCA presentation of the new rules was informed by consultations with small enterprises (Lamondin, 2019), they have a complex influence on the scale of food operations. Large firms (and farms) have more resources to implement programmes, such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system, than do most small firms. It is one of the criticisms of the new approaches to food safety that they favor large operations over small ones (Berger Richardson, 2019) and are contributing to the process of consolidation within the food and agricultural sector (as small operators are forced out of business and their resources directly or indirectly acquired by better resourced operations).

Following interviews with farmers and microprocessors under the old food safety regime, the Toronto Food Policy Council (1995) concluded:

  • It is expensive to meet food safety regulations designed for large operations.
  • Inspectors often do not provide technical assistance and expect operators to have the sophisticated knowledge (and the associated formal education) needed to meet the regulatory requirements. Inspectors do not necessarily see themselves as problem solvers.
  • It is difficult to test market products until a fully approved facility is in place. Yet, small operators usually cannot afford to put everything in place before developing a test market for their product. Facilities that can address this problem (such as food technology centers and incubator kitchens) are only available in a limited number of communities.

It is not clear these problems have been corrected under the new approach. The SFCA provides for a limited number of exemptions from the requirement to have a written Preventive Control Plan (but not from implementing prevention measures) for firms and farms selling across borders with under $100,000 in gross sales (SFCA Regulations sections 86 and 87).  These rules would appear to most benefit fresh fruit and vegetable producers.  However, in many cases provincial rules mandate that such firms have a license from the CFIA, and therefore a PCP will be required.  In other words, a federal exemption under the SFCA may not be an exemption in reality.

Favoring large operators over small ones may ultimately prove to be self-defeating in food safety terms. Waltner-Toews (1992) articulated some time ago that larger firms operating in a liberalized  trading environment and effectively implementing programmes like HACCP reduce the likelihood of a small scale food-borne illness outbreak (relative to small firms), since they have more money to effectively implement programmes. However, because of their size, the volume of food flowing through their plants, and their global sourcing and distribution, if there is a problem, it is more likely to have widespread consequences than  when a problem emerges in a small plant that serves a primarily local or regional market. Food-borne disease outbreaks associated  with liberalized trade frequently have national and international implications, do not follow the patterns of earlier outbreaks, and require enormous resources to track food movements and identify those made ill (Tauxe, 1997).

It has also been understood for some time, highlighted again by the COVID-19 pandemic, that food system scale increases, intensification, population growth, and invasion of wilder spaces augments the possibilities of zoonotic diseases in human populations (see Lambrou et al., 2021).   LIvestock epipemics have tripled over the last 15 years, in association with scale increases (Leclair, 2020).  "Large-scale units are presented as the solution to a problem they helped create. While the destruction of nature and wild habitats, often for industrial purposes, has led to the transmission of new viruses, many studies have shown the acceleration of epizootic diseases also owes much to the industrialisation of livestock farming." (Leclair, 2020).

Regarding the most local and small scale of  food producers, there are no specific cottage food laws in Canada (Berger Richardson, 2019), with the exception of Saskatchewan that permits certain low risks goods to be sold from cottage producers, although there are some labeling exemptions for goods sold only at a road-side stand, craft show, flea market, fair, farmers' market or sugar bush by the individual who prepared and processed the product.  There are also significant problems for remote communities practicing a form of internal self-provisioning.  For example, some indigenous communities have a commercial fishery or country foods provisioning system for community institutions such as schools, but are not able to process and distribute such foods unless food safety and inspection processes are respected.  But they don't have the facilities, distribution infrastructure, resources and training to meet those requirements, so often end up relying on more expensive and less nourishing market foods.  They are obliged to process and market through the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation, which has a monopoly on processing, distribution and marketing of wildcaught fish in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the NWT.  Although the Corporation appears to have benefits for southern fishers, it works less well for remote communities (cf. Thompson et al., 2014).

A similar problem exists around environmental performance.  Small firms are less likely to invest in both environmental performance and environmental performance reporting and in the absence of such reporting, it is increasingly difficult to find financing. Governments need to support small firms with ES&G reporting (Jones, J. 2021. Large firms more likely to set up environmental practices, Globe and Mail. Sept 23, B4).

Training and R&D difficulties

As discussed, the SFCA requires firms to undertake preventive measures, even if a written plan is not required.  Although many elements of prevention are generic, they have very specific applications based on the conditions of the firm or farm.  Many commodity groups also have voluntary protocols that firms and farms are trying to meet.  All this requires expertise.  Larger firms and farms have employees responsible for food safety.  Small ones typically do not.

The 80/20 problem

Approximately 20% of the farmers and processors generate 80% of the production  by value (AAFC, 2015). In meat slaughter, the numbers are even more extreme, with 5% of the plants (under federal regulation) producing 95% of the national volume and 95% of the plants producing 5% of the volume primarily under provincial regulation. Consequently, the policy system, including food safety, focuses on the 20%.  But this means that 80% don't get the same level of attention.  Because locality and sustainability are emerging foci, it means that the bulk of such producers are likely in the 80%.  Some conversations with these actors reveal that what they sometimes interpret as food safety difficulties are actually more the result of economic marginalization (Berger-Richardson, 2019a).

Provincial mandatory requirements and oversight are inconsistent.  What this suggests is the need for scale, distanced traveled regulation rather than provincial vs. federal.  some propose that everyone should follow national laws, one approach across the country.  This was in part suggested by COVID, whereby temporary movement of provincially inspected across borders was permitted, but not actually requested.