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U.S. Spinach Still Banned in Canada

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 5, 2006

If there is a silver lining in disasters, it is that they stress out systems and thus reveal internal weaknesses. For example, we’ve learned that the traceback systems we trumpet so proudly are only half of what is needed. We need a way to quickly trace forward where bad product may have wound up so that we can get dangerous product off the street and so we don’t have secondary recalls dribbling in for a week or longer.

Another area that has shown severe weakness is the relationship between the FDA and the Canadian Food inspection Agency.

When the FDA said that spinach from all but three counties in California were OK, you might think that announcement would have allowed for New Jersey, Ohio, Colorado and other spinach growing areas to sell spinach everywhere. But it didn’t. You surely think that now that the FDA has said that all spinach is back to normal that one can sell it anywhere.

But this is not true. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) maintains a ban on importing U.S. spinach. You can read its policy right here.

As an American, it is easy to blast the CFIA, but other countries are not obligated to parrot whatever the FDA says and, if anything, the CFIA is guilty of taking what the FDA says more seriously than the FDA does.

One day the FDA is saying that things are so dangerous with spinach that nobody should eat it from anywhere — a week later everything is safe, although nothing has changed.

How does the CFIA know that the FDA didn’t bow to political pressure and there isn’t still danger?

Now some of the things the CFIA complains about make no sense at all, including an inability to ascertain where the spinach comes from. Countries all over the world, including Canada, rely on a system of phytosanitary certificates to certify that something is enterable, and there is not a reason in the world why that system shouldn’t satisfy Canada as to the origin of the spinach.

But on the bigger issue, Canada is really telling its U.S. counterpart to explain itself. It is not an unreasonable request, and the whole area of cross-border consultations is something we should develop a new approach to.

Canada should change its policy right away. It is hurting spinach farmers and consumers for no reason. Spinach is not now, and never has been, “unsafe” in any reasonable statistical sense.

But the FDA should pay attention too. Throughout this process, FDA has behaved arbitrarily and the CFIA is letting the FDA know that it won’t be played for a song.

To understand better the exact situation in Canada, Mira Slott, our ace reporter and special projects editor here at the Pundit, interviewed Danny Dempster, President of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), and Heather Holland, CPMA’s Senior Technical Manager, Food Safety and Government Relations:

CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE

Q: Why is Canada still banning all U.S. spinach imports?

DEMPSTER: As of now, CFIA will still not allow imports of U.S. spinach. We still do not know what propelled FDA to make its decision from the start to ban all U.S. spinach products, acting on behalf of U.S. citizens. CFIA has had no choice. One wonders how FDA made such a sweeping decision to impact the whole sector. Once FDA did that and implicated all U.S. spinach, it then required the Canadian government to determine how to deal with it.

The CFIA, the regulatory enforcement body for food safety and standards, essentially had 15 minutes’ warning before FDA went forward with its announcement. CFIA had to determine appropriate steps needed to protect Canadian citizens. With all U.S. product implicated, we had to examine our domestic spinach industry here. We went down that road, and there wasn’t anything suggesting Canadian spinach was a problem. We didn’t want to hurt domestic production, but the media and consumers wanted answers and wanted to know why the Canadian government wasn’t doing something more.

Q: But now FDA is telling consumers it is OK to eat U.S. spinach again. Hasn’t the word spread to Canadian consumers?

DEMPSTER: Obviously we impart U.S. messages. We know the FDA is saying Americans can eat fresh spinach. However, in Canada our hazard alert put out by CFIA is still in affect. The general media on Friday reported that FDA issued a statement clearing all spinach, including that grown in California, for consumption. There was a huge headline on the second page of our local newspaper saying it was OK to eat.

Q: So, CFIA is not in agreement with the FDA?

DEMPSTER: CFIA has still not cleared the way for U.S. spinach to enter into Canada. Consumers are receiving two different signals because CFIA’s message is not consistent with the FDA’s. This tends to be confusing for Canadian citizens.

Q: What is the root of CFIA’s disagreement with FDA recommendations?

HOLLAND: CFIA doesn’t want any California spinach. The dialogue between CFIA and FDA has come down to CFIA asking, “What assurances can you give us that spinach coming from the U.S. is not grown in California fields or repacked from California?” FDA couldn’t give CFIA satisfactory assurances.

It’s frustrating, because the information we have received from FDA says that California spinach is OK to eat because the products subject to the recall all expired on Oct. 1. Technically speaking, there shouldn’t be any more affected product out there anyway. CFIA is verifying that there is no product from the affected areas being produced at this time.

Q: How does this impact your market?

DEMPSTER: Just as retailers you’ve interviewed have been hesitant to start selling spinach again, response from retailers here is similar. Some retailers are even wondering whether they should sell domestic Canadian spinach.

HOLLAND: There’s been a 30 percent decrease in fresh spinach sales since the outbreak. Our market for U.S. spinach is actually much smaller in the summer months because Canada produces its own at this time. This is problematic for us because we want fresh spinach on the shelf. We are seeing spinach from Canada in supermarkets now. By the end of the month the frost comes and our season is over. If the Canadian ban for U.S. spinach is not lifted, we won’t have spinach for Canadian consumers. We need to base this on science. FDA is saying one thing, CFIA is saying another, and the Canadian consumer is left to wonder what’s right.

Q: What can be done to alleviate this problem?

DEMPSTER: Right now we are in the middle of the crisis, but at end of the day, we need to do a wrap-up on how these decisions got made. The future strategy needs to involve us. FDA called the shots and CFIA responded with different health messages.

Q: But even in the U.S., the FDA has been giving consumers mixed messages throughout the ordeal…

DEMPSTER: You’ve been unraveling the FDA’s handling of the spinach outbreak daily in the Perishable Pundit, but there is another part of the novel. There’s a chapter on how the handling of the outbreak rolled out in Canada. How do FDA and CFIA communicate, particularly when we have products moving between the two countries, and what does that mean to the bottom-line impact?

Q: Based on the FDA go-ahead, U.S. spinach is available for sale, so isn’t it now in CFIA’s hands to give Canadian consumers the OK?

DEMPSTER: Now the industry down in the U.S. is saying, “How come Canada is not letting our spinach in?” The fresh fruit and vegetable industry needs to understand that issues in the U.S. have strong implications in Canada. The root cause of the contamination is still under investigation. We need to know that. CFIA is very challenged to put protocols in place. It risks putting resources in the wrong areas. FDA still has not put the CFIA at ease.

Q: What are some steps that can be taken?

HOLLAND: What Danny is proposing is a post mortem opportunity to improve commercial relations between the U.S. and Canada and understand that this will impact upon business in the future. The FDA’s recommendations resulted in CFIA taking actions it deemed appropriate, but now it remains at odds with FDA.

Q: Do you believe basic communication gaps are a source of the problem?

DEMPSTER: FDA was often providing information to our CFIA guys late on Friday when they couldn’t take significant action on the weekend. Then there are the unanswered questions that concern to us. Why would FDA say it’s OK to eat spinach, and CFIA says it’s not, and why are the messages changing? What is the message?

Q: Getting a consistent message out seems prudent.

HOLLAND: Because FDA made the outbreak such a broad issue to start with, millions of dollars in produce sales were lost. A critical component of any wrap up is assessing the power of what FDA says and the implications. How do we minimize negativity and the type of response? The industry needs to take responsibility in educating consumers. CPMA wants to work on mitigating concerns, teaching consumers about recalls and food safety issues.

Q: Do you have any sense of when U.S. spinach will start flowing through Canada again?

DEMPSTER: It depends on the results of CFIA discussions with FDA, and resolving the disconnect between the two organizations. Two countries very similar in approach need to get some cohesion. And it doesn’t end there. The U.S. government runs into conflicts with the individual states, and we can only hope the provinces don’t deviate from the Canadian federal mandate.

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