COVID-19 and the food industry

The pandemic raises many important questions

21 July 2020


While I write this in early April, every industry is being profoundly affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic; our food and restaurant sectors are among those that have been hit the hardest. The media has concentrated on issues relating to our grocery stores and disruptions to the food supply chain. The current pandemic also raises many policy and legal questions that are not so obvious, some that require urgent attention and some that we will have to struggle with in the longer term after this crisis subsides.

Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW)

A number of agricultural sectors would be crippled without TFW. Most Canadians would be surprised to know how reliant we have become. The government has now said they will be allowed in, but keeping them in quarantine for 14 days upon arrival will prove difficult given their close quarters here and may make them less economical. Will they be allowed to come through the U.S.? Should we be thinking now of using some unemployed Canadians to take their place this year if there proves to be a shortage?

Increased Protectionism

During the recovery period, we are likely to experience a new round of protectionism as all countries try to create and protect jobs for their domestic industries. Are we ready for the imposition of a host of new protectionist measures such as, for example, for the U.S. to push again for Country of Origin Labelling? We have the legal right to ban imports on food-safety grounds; what restrictions should we now consider?

Over-reliance on imported food

We get 6,000 truckloads of food from the U.S. every day and this is not just fresh fruit and vegetables. While food processing is the number one manufacturing employer in Canada, we still import more food than we export. In the last 25 years I have witnessed the closure of dozens of major food plants, what some have called the "gutting" of our food processing industry. Moreover, protecting Canadians from the much greater safety risks of imported food has already proven to be a daunting task. Prior to COVID-19 there would have been little appetite to raise this difficult question: while I know we are a trading nation and have benefited immensely from global-ized trade, has Canada become too reliant on imported food? Shouldn't we process more of our own food? Shouldn't we work towards being more food sovereign?

Zoonotic Diseases

More than 60 per cent of human diseases come from animals. COVID-19 is just the latest. Over the past three decades, 75 per cent of new emerging human pathogens have been of animal origin. It was completely predictable that the next pandemic would come from animals and from a country like China. It has been estimated that the top 56 zoonotic diseases are responsible for 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million human deaths worldwide each year. With the appointment recently of Dr. Harpreet Kochar as Associate Deputy Minister of Health, we have an ideal opportunity to promote the One Health model, as he was formerly responsible for animal health at the CFIA and was Canada's Chief Veterinary Officer. Exotic disease outbreaks are common in animal health where randomized surveillance is frequently used as support for decision making. With all the research money being announced, can we seize this opportunity to practise One Health principles and become a world leader in zoonotic diseases?

Antimicrobial Resistance

While the medical community recognizes that the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance is a potential disaster for humanity, and that it is the overuse of antimicrobials in human medicine that is the largest contributor, there is still broad concern that the use in animals may contribute to the problem. A U.K. report reckons that drug-proof bugs already kill 700,000 people a year and warns that number is likely to rise to at least 10 million by 2050. The emergence of a serious new superbug pathogen could lead to a human health crisis more deadly than COVID-19. Canada has finally made remarkable strides in mitigating agriculture's contribution to the problem, but in this globalized world are we doing enough to protect ourselves from the many countries that have not acted?

Of course, more broadly, when this is over, in all sectors we're going to have to think through questions that were previously unthinkable. Are we up to it?

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