Reflecting back on 25 years of Food Law

5 minute read
05 July 2023


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

This spring marks the 26th anniversary of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the 20th anniversary of this Food Law column. So, this is a good time to reflect on how our food law regime has developed over the last quarter century.

In 1995, a critical Auditor General report and continuing criticism by provinces and industry about overlaps and confusion in food inspection led the federal government to review the delivery of food inspection and related activities. This resulted in the creation of the Office of Food Inspection Systems (OFIS) with a mandate to consult Canadians, particularly the provinces and industry and consumer groups, and analyze options for change. OFIS carried out an extensive consultation and submitted four options to the federal government in November 1995. The options ranged from a modest recommendation that the four responsible departments co-ordinate better to the most radical change of creating a new legislated agency with a president (deputy minister) reporting directly to a federal minister. This agency will be responsible for enforcement along the whole food chain, from seeds, feeds, fertilizer, animal health and plant protection to all food commodities. Cabinet selected the agency option, bringing 16 programs (and multiple statutes) under one roof, with the agency president reporting directly to the agriculture minister. Legislation was expedited and CFIA opened its doors on April 1, 1997. 

During the consultations leading to the creation of the CFIA, OFIS promised the next step toward consolidation would be a single, modernized food act. After further consultation and analysis, Bill C-81 was introduced in Parliament. The minister of the day chose not to proceed with the legislation as, in his opinion, proceeding would have given opposition parties opportunities to raise several controversial issues at the time, such as the regulation of organics, and the serious threat of the introduction of Mad Cow Disease into Canada.

Consolidating food law

It took many years before Canada had a partially consolidated food law regime with the Safe Food For Canadians Act. This act replaced the Meat Inspection Act, the Fish Inspection Act, the Canada Agricultural Products Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. The Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) consolidated 14 sets of regulations and came into force in 2019, creating a more modernized and comprehensive system of licensing, and preventive controls requirements to address potential risks to food safety. In the years since the promulgation of SFCR, a mountain of new directives, regulations, policies and guidelines have continued to be developed. As Katrina Coughlin, who practises agriculture and food law in the Ottawa offices of Gowling WLG, recently commented, "if you're in the food industry, you're always swimming in a sea of regulation."

Looking back, Peter Brackenridge, an original OFIS member and later CFIA vice-president, notes from his interactions with other countries, "Canada is the envy of the world to have such a consolidated and modernized system; having the same agency responsible for animal health, plant health, feed regulation and food safety is still very rare. It has proven to be invaluable in dealing with critical issues, including zoonotic diseases such as BSE."

He notes that our Office of Food Safety and Recall has been recognized internationally as a model.

Recurring themes

Looking back over the last 20 years of this Food Law column, a number of interesting insights emerge. For example, considering the scope and depth of Canada's food law, it is remarkable how little jurisprudence there is, a fact discussed in the 2017 article "Sue the CFIA? Good Luck." Food recalls, trade issues, consumer fraud, and organic food regulation were repeating topics. The relationship between science and politics (a profound confusion that still exists, as we all saw in the recent COVID pandemic) was a recurrent topic, which we discussed in the 2008 column "Politicizing science: Scientizing politics" and the 2016 article "Separate Science and Politics? Think Again."

Several articles also promoted the concept of one health, which recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. The recent appointment of Dr. Harpreet Kochar as President of CFIA bodes well for the promotion of one health, as Dr. Kochar has been Canada's Chief Veterinary Officer and an associate deputy minister of health.

We've come a long way in 25 years. Our food law regime is not perfect, but I would argue it is second to none.

NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.

Related   Food & Beverage