Farmers raise concerns about food safety changes

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>EVAN BOWER PHOTO</p><p>Vendors at the Lunenburg Farmers Market may be impacted by proposed changes to the Safe Food for Canadians Act if they retail any of their goods across provincial boundaries.</p>

Small-scale vegetable and fruit farmers fear proposed changes to the Safe Food for Canadians Act could threaten their livelihood, as well as the economy of rural Nova Scotia.

A number of organizations and individuals are responding to a call by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), including the Farmers' Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative (FMNSC), the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) and the Municipality of Lunenburg (MODL).

The new regulations are being suggested as a way to level the playing field in Canada's agriculture industry and take steps to ensure food safety.

But critics argue they're "unfair and overly burdensome" to local producers, according to Keltie Butler, executive director of the Farmers' Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative.

According to Butler, New Brunswick farmer Tim Livingstone, of Strawberry Hill Farm, reviewed all the food safety recalls on the CFIA website from 2013 to February 2017 before making a submission to the agency.

He discovered that of the 840 food recalls, half were for labeling-related issues pertaining to allergens. Of the half that were food-safety related, the majority were for meats and packaged foods. There were only 22 recalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, and all but one were either imported or international in scope. Only one was clearly from a Canadian farm - a needle issue with potatoes grown in Prince Edward Island.

Butler notes that the FMNSC and the NSFA share Livingstone's assertion that small-scale farmers have "an increased sense of food safety and responsibility for the fact that they're facing their customers week after week, face to face."

"Their small business wouldn't be able to survive any sort of serious food safety problem. And so they're really taking preventative measures that fit their scale on an ongoing basis."

Butler says one of the most concerning issues to the cooperative is that the new regulations would require farms to have a preventative control plan (PCP) in place in more cases. While before a farmer could bring, say, carrots to a market washed and with the green stems cut off, this would now be considered processing and require the farms to have dedicated cleaning areas that meet specified safety standards.

CFIA has estimated the proposed changes will cost farmers $6,370 per year. "Micro-farms" - farms with a gross annual income of $30,000 - would be exempt.

In its submission to the CFIA the cooperative argued the dollar amount "is much too low."

"Considering the growing non-commodity farm sector in Atlantic Canada, and the profitability of direct-to-consumer sales, this exemption will only serve to limit small farm growth and profit."

NSFA president Chris van den Heuvel agreed. In his submission to the CFIA, van den Heuvel wrote, "I ask you to familiarize yourself with how these regulations will impact direct-to-market farms and in turn the rural economy."

However, as Butler reminds, the regulations are aimed specifically at food producers exporting to communities across provincial borders, not to farmers selling within their communities. While she says some farmers in Cumberland County expect to be impacted, farmers elsewhere may as well.

In the cooperative's letter to the CFIA, Butler wrote: "Given the geography and demographics, we recommend that the Safe Foods for Canadians Act Regulations treat Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as one unique regional entity, equivalent to a province. Taken alone, the size/population of each of the Maritime provinces creates a challenge for farms to access a sufficient customer base as well as insufficient inputs and infrastructure."

MODL council members agreed at their meeting on April 11 to send a letter to both the CFIA and MP Bernadette Jordan "outlining council's concerns and requesting amendments to protect small-scale local producers."

Errol Knickle, the councillor for District 10, said the proposed changes run contrary to the Ivany Report, which encouraged economic development in Nova Scotia. He also criticized what he called the lack of communication between the federal and municipal governments.

"I think we have to be really aggressive on this one," said Knickle.

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