Foreign Food Safety Systems Recognition Framework

March 25, 2016

Introduction and Context

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has embarked on a change agenda designed to strengthen how food commodities are regulated in Canada. Initiatives include the new Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA), regulations to be made under the Act, and the Integrated Agency Inspection Model. The SFCA, when fully in force, establishes a modern legislative framework for food safety. Recognizing the challenging import environment, the SFCA significantly strengthens import oversight authorities and proposed SFCA regulations will require importers to be licensed, develop and maintain a preventive control plan and have a fixed place of business in Canada, except where the Minister has recognized a foreign system

Canada currently uses a range of tools and approaches for import control, based on its legislative and regulatory framework, to target inspection resources and to verify compliance with requirements, in line with international rights and obligations. These include:

  • pre-border activities (e.g. arrangements with an exporting country; certification; equivalence determination),
  • at border activities (e.g. admissibility of shipments),
  • post-border activities (e.g. inspection, sampling and testing), or
  • a combination thereof.

As the CFIA modernizes its food safety regulatory system, it has an opportunity to make greater use of tools that could optimize its risk management activities for imports. Many of Canada's trading partners have mature domestic food safety systems with public health outcomes that are broadly comparable to Canada's system. Others have commodity specific control programs and oversight which can provide confidence that Canadian requirements will be met. The CFIA can leverage these systems, programs and oversight in its risk management approaches for imports using tools such as recognition of foreign food safety systems and programs.

Objective and Scope

This framework elaborates on the use of recognition of foreign food safety systems and commodity specific food safety control programs and systems of inspection as a Canadian import control tool and identifies benefits, guiding principles and a process to guide implementation. It applies to the following situations:

  1. Where trade between Canada and an exporting country is ongoing and existing knowledge, confidence and experience suggest that the national food control systems of the two countries achieve comparable outcomes.
  2. Where trade in a specific commodity is ongoing and where knowledge, confidence and experience suggest that the foreign country's export control program for that commodity achieves the equivalent level of protection and outcomes as Canada's requirements.
  3. Where Canada has established equivalence of a foreign country's food safety controls and inspection system as a prerequisite for import of a commodity.

The framework applies to food safety controls and oversight. It would not normally apply to requirements such as labelling, grades or compositional standards or to standards set by Health Canada such as maximum residue limits and microbiological criteria.

Animal and plant health import requirements are also not within the scope of this framework, and must be met in order for food products to be imported into Canada. CFIA's existing bilateral arrangements remain in effect as per the conditions of each arrangement. They are subject to regular reviews to determine that they are operating as originally intended and that they remain effective.

What are the Categories of Recognition?

  1. Foreign food safety systems recognition (FFSSR): A  recognition that the design and operational performance of two countries' national food control systems provide comparable public health outcomes, legislative frameworks, implementation and oversight programs, and monitoring of regulatory performance. Systems recognition will be limited to exporting countries with mature national food control system taking into account experience, knowledge and confidence, and a high level of compliance history. The scope will generally include all elements of a domestic food safety control system and all, or most, food commodities.
  2. Commodity specific recognition:  Recognition by Canada that an exporting country's food safety control program for a specific commodity is designed, implemented and verified such that Canadian requirements are met. Prior to entering into an assessment, the CFIA would take into account the experience, knowledge and confidence developed with the exporting country based on a history of trade and high level of compliance.
  3. Recognition of systems of inspection as a pre-requisite to trade: Canadian legislation requires a foreign country's meat or molluscan shellfish systems of inspection to be evaluated and recognized to ensure that Canadian requirements are met before export can be initiated.

Legal authorities

Under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act, the CFIA has authority to enter into international arrangements within its mandate, such as food safety recognition arrangements.

For some commodities, existing legislation such as the Meat Inspection Act and the Fish Inspection Regulations requires recognition of systems of inspection as a pre-requisite to importation into Canada. The Meat Inspection Act prohibits importation of a meat product into Canada unless it originates from a country where the meat inspection systems and the relevant establishments in the country are approved in advance of importation. The Fish Inspection Regulationsprohibits importation of molluscan shellfish product into Canada unless the system of inspection for molluscan shellfish, the waters in the growing and harvesting areas, and monitoring are approved in advance of importation.

The SFCA provides regulation-making authority “respecting the recognition of systems of inspection, certification, manufacturing, preparation, storage, packaging, labelling or testing”. In addition to requiring foreign equivalence meat and molluscan shellfish as a pre-requisite to trade, under the proposed SFCA regulations, imports of other commodities may also be identified as requiring recognition of systems of inspection prior to admissibility, based on risk.

Benefits of Recognition

Where trade is ongoing, recognition of foreign food safety systems or a commodity specific food safety control program, are import control tools that can offer benefits to Canada as an importing country. They signal Canada's confidence in the exporting country's food safety system or program and enable the CFIA to take this into consideration when prioritizing inspection activities at import and allocate inspection resources based on risk.

Recognition can also advance cooperation and confidence building between regulatory counterparts, including sharing of best practices and leveraging resources (e.g. joint audits, reliance on each other's audits) to inform food safety risk management activities and enhance the safety of food in trade.

Foreign food safety systems recognition provides additional assurance to Canadian importers that a food from a recognized foreign food safety control system or commodity specific food safety program provides the same level of protection as food prepared in Canada.  This could be reflected in a company's preventive control plan.

Finally, under the proposed SFCA regulations, the CFIA is considering whether to allow importers in a country with which Canada has a food safety recognition arrangement, who do not have a fixed place of business in Canada, to obtain a CFIA importer license for food products that are within the scope of the recognition arrangement.

Guiding Principles

The following principles are applied by the CFIA in its approach to recognition of foreign food safety systems, a country's commodity specific food safety control program and a foreign country's inspection system:

  1. Food safety - recognition should contribute to Canada's food safety objectives and enhance food safety oversight.
  2. Outcome-based - different systems or control programs and oversight can achieve comparable public health and consumer protection outcomes.
  3. Evidence-based - recognition relies on a rigorous assessment of an exporting country's food safety system or commodity specific program and oversight.
  4. Confidence - recognition should build confidence in the exporting country's oversight, including that it will proactively take action when non-compliance issues are identified, and provide information that could help enhance the importing country's risk management activities.
  5. Flexibility - as food safety systems, regulatory frameworks, programs and oversight continue to evolve, ongoing dialogue and information exchange between the importing and exporting country and regular reviews, should support maintenance of recognition arrangements.
  6. Transparency - the rationale and criteria for the recognition approaches should be documented and transparent.
  7. International consistency - the CFIA's approaches to recognition will be based on international standards, guidelines and recommendations, as appropriate, in the development and implementation of recognition arrangements, in line with international rights and obligations.
  8. Reciprocity - CFIA will pursue reciprocal recognition, where it is of mutual interest and benefit to the regulatory counterparts.
  9. Third party approaches - recognition may include third party providers, where these are officially recognized by the competent authority for the implementation of government controls (e.g. for testing and inspection).

Recognition Process

The scope of a proposal for determination of recognition is agreed upon between Canada and the exporting country. It may include all elements which make up a domestic food safety control system (foreign food safety systems recognition) or may be limited to those elements as applicable to a food commodity (recognition of a country's commodity specific food safety control program or systems of inspection) as agreed between Canada and the exporting country.

Discussions towards a food safety recognition process can be initiated by either the CFIA or the exporting country, and can be one way or reciprocal. In reciprocal agreements each country would assess the other concurrently against their food safety systems or commodity specific food safety control program. The CFIA will engage with its partners, as appropriate, in the undertaking of a recognition arrangement, e.g. other relevant Government of Canada departments and agencies. Further, capacity to enter into a recognition arrangement will be influenced by availability of resources and overall benefit to Canada.

The process for entering into recognition arrangement discussions is based on the Canadian Assessment Standards Tool, and includes:

Pre-assessment

  • A pre-assessment against clear established criteria is conducted to determine whether there is an adequate basis to enter into discussions towards a recognition arrangement.
  • Criteria include, as applicable:
    • whether there is significant trade between the exporting and importing countries for the products proposed in the scope of an arrangement, where trade is ongoing, or potential for trade where recognition is a pre-requisite to trade;
    • the level of experience, knowledge and confidence in an exporting country's food control system or commodity specific program and oversight;
    • whether Canada's food safety resources could be optimized as a result of the arrangement;
    • the exporting country's compliance history, where trade is ongoing.
  • For meat and molluscan shellfish, where assessment and recognition of the exporting country's systems of inspection is a pre-requisite to trade, criteria to be considered in the pre-assessment/prioritization include the potential volume of imports into Canada, animal health controls, and availability of resources to initiate an assessment.

Assessment

If Canada and the exporting country decide to engage in a food safety recognition process, the assessment includes a documentation review, iterative exchanges with the foreign competent authority to ensure understanding and completeness of the documentary evidence, followed by in-country assessments in the exporting country to verify implementation.  The assessment focuses on pre-requisite elements which make up a strong regulatory domestic food safety control system, commodity specific food safety program, or systems of inspection including:

  • the legislative/regulatory foundation of the system or the commodity;
  • organizational details (e.g. structure of the Competent Authority (ies);
  • food inspection program(s);
  • compliance and enforcement;
  • program assessment(s) and inspection audit(s);
  • food-related illness and outbreaks;
  • scientific capacity, including laboratories, personnel, systems, evaluation and/or accreditation;
  • competency and training of personnel;
  • program resources;
  • transparency and engagement with stakeholders;
  • international communications and harmonization; and/or,
  • any other element that may be identified by the Minister.
  • For meat and poultry products, where recognition of systems of inspection is a pre-requisite to imports into Canada, the assessment and recognition process are as described in Chapter 10 of the Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedure.

Maintenance

  • Food safety recognition arrangements will be maintained based on regular reviews to verify continued effectiveness and performance, and ongoing information exchanges with the foreign competent authority.
  • Where CFIA determines the recognition arrangement with a foreign competent authority is no longer effective as an import control tool or where the CFIA no longer has confidence that the recognition arrangement meets its intended objectives, the status of the recognition will be re-assessed.
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