Meat inspection - some interprovincial trade barriers are fully justifiable

14 December 2020

This article originally appeared in Food in Canada and is republished with the permission of the publisher.

We are regularly told by think tanks, journalists, academics and countless government studies that Canada's interprovincial trade barriers cause all manner of problems and cost our economy billions of dollars annually, all because of petty parochial protectionism. The latest was a recent article in the National Post blaming the beef shortage during the early days of COVID-19 in the spring on a lack of processing capacity caused by, you guessed it, interprovincial trade barriers that prevent us from having a single meat inspection system. This article and others were prompted by emergency action taken by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in June to allow temporarily, by Ministerial Exemption, meat not from federal plants to move interprovincially upon the application of a province that proves it has a shortage of meat (turns out no province actually exercised this option). If we can do it for emergencies, critics argued, why can't we just permanently get rid of this unnecessary internal trade barrier? Why can't we have one system of meat inspection in Canada?

Over the past 18 years I have mostly kept my promise to protect my dear readers from arcane lessons in constitutional law but you will have to bear with me here for a bit. Put simply, under our constitution, trade and commerce within a province is primarily a provincial responsibility. With a few exceptions, the federal government only has jurisdiction to legislate in relation to products that cross provincial or international boundaries. So trade- and commerce-based statutes like the old Meat Inspection Act (now encompassed in the Safe Food For Canadians Act) can only apply to interprovincial or international commerce and have no jurisdiction over businesses that trade solely within a province. So, Canada couldn't impose one system even if it wanted to.

Federally regulated meat plants must strictly adhere to thousands of rules contained in hundreds of pages of regulations. Every plant is overseen by an on-site CFIA veterinarian and several inspectors. While these large plants account for 95 per cent by volume of the meat produced in Canada, they represent only five per cent of our meat plants; all the others fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces and here we have a messy regulatory patchwork.

Some provinces have virtually no mandatory meat inspection. Animals can be slaughtered, processed and meat sold at retail with no regulatory oversight at all. Some provinces have impressive laws and no enforcement. When confronted with these regulatory gaps in the past, many provinces replied that there was no scientific evidence that meat from provincial plants is any less safe, and argued that it was completely unnecessary to apply the    level of federal regulations (driven in part by the need to be equivalent to the international trading system) to plants that might process fewer animals in a year than some federal plants slaughter in an hour. But if you're a province that does have a modest inspection system, you are completely justified in supporting the federal regulation that makes it an offense for the (uninspected) provincial meat from the province next door to come into your province. Moreover, national treatment rules in trade law would disallow Canada to deny entry to meat from other countries if we allowed meat from non-federally registered plants to cross provincial boundaries.

So when a columnist argues for the removal of the prohibition against the interprovincial movement of meat products stating that that it is "incredibly silly… quite ridiculous to suggest that beef products processed and inspected in Alberta or Ontario wouldn't meet the safety requirements for consumers in Manitoba or Nova Scotia," he demonstrates a profound lack of knowledge of both the law and the facts on the ground. But he's in good company; most Canadians have little understanding of where their food comes from or how it is processed.

So this is one internal trade barrier that's not going away. Provincial governments do not want to close small plants or to incur the huge investment that would be required to enforce mandatory inspection. And the federal government has no interest in assuming the regulatory and legal responsibility for hundreds of small provincial plants. The dual system is here to stay. This is one internal trade barrier that is entirely justifiable.

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