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Rushed rules on romaine imports raise concerns

CFIA measures implemented with ‘a near total lack of runway for compliance’

romaine lettuce leaves

To help prevent another E. coli outbreak, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has placed strict, temporary controls on romaine lettuce imports, but the process has left the grocery sector feeling in the lurch.

Effective Oct. 7, importers have to provide proof that romaine lettuce destined for Canada does not originate in California’s Salinas Valley, or provide an official certificate of analysis from an accredited lab confirming that the lettuce has below-detectable levels of E. coli.

The testing applies to romaine lettuce as well as mixed salads containing romaine, and will be required until the end of this year.

In a press release, CFIA noted that from 2016 to 2019, romaine lettuce from California was linked to outbreaks of E. coli illnesses in the U.S. and Canada.

“Food safety investigations by Canadian and U.S. authorities identified the Salinas Valley growing region as a recurring source of the outbreaks,” the CFIA stated. “To mitigate risk in the event of another outbreak this fall, the [CFIA] is implementing temporary import measures aimed at preventing contaminated food from entering the marketplace.”

What’s concerning to the grocery sector is two-fold. “Number, one there was no consultation done at all with industry—retailers or importers—that I’m aware of,” says Jason McLinton, vice-president, grocery division and regulatory affairs at Retail Council of Canada. “Number two is the near total lack of runway for compliance.”

The industry was informed of new requirements, in draft form only, on Sept. 28. The final requirements were released on Sept. 30, leaving only a few days for compliance, which McLinton says is “just not reasonable.”

Of course, the industry isn’t calling the need for food safety into question—they just would like a seat at the proverbial table. “Food safety is the absolute top priority for grocery retailers,” says McLinton. “And so, grocery retailers are very supportive of having discussions and coming to workable solutions around food safety, whether that’s in an investigation or recall, or pre-emptively, like in this case.”

But, he adds, those discussions do have to take place, along with an appropriate lead-time for new measures, “so industry can actually comply with what’s being asked.”

In an email to Canadian Grocer, a CFIA spokesperson said the CFIA “is working with industry associations and their members to strengthen food safety measures, including the new sampling and testing requirements. The CFIA has collaborated with industry representatives to address their questions and provide needed information and assistance for businesses to better understand the new temporary measures and prepare for implementation.”

However, Gary Sands, senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG), notes that not only have retailers, importers, wholesalers and distributors not had time to prepare, some may not even be aware of what’s going into place on Oct. 7.

“As well, CFIG has drawn the government’s attention to the unique supply challenges faced by many independent retail grocers in Canada,” says Sands. “An unforeseen testing regime put in place could, in essence, mean either no romaine lettuce for many retailers, or by the time it has been distributed, it is past its shelf life.”

Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) agrees the new measures will lead to product shortages. “Right now, we’re coming out of our domestic growing season for romaine and moving into our winter season, where 95% to 98% of the product coming into our retail channels comes out of the California market,” he says. “Relative to the requirements, [buyers] will have to pivot, and in a market with pandemic-related [challenges] and the California fires, there are already challenges in production.”

With regards to testing, the spokesperson said the CFIA is providing flexibility by allowing testing to be done once Romaine lettuce products have entered into Canada. “In this case, the imported product is placed on hold while undergoing testing and cannot go to market unless the results come back negative for E. coli. This temporary regulation applies to lettuce from California. The CFIA will continue to work with partners in the United States as they implement their action plan on romaine lettuce from this area.”

When it comes to testing, the challenge will be doing it quickly on a perishable product. “When it hits the border, it can’t wait a week,” says Lemaire. “Within 24 hours it has to be tested, be confirmed and be distributed.”

And yes, that sounds near impossible. “This is why we’re upset with the process,” says Lemaire. “Getting the labs and getting the testing requirements in place, it’s extremely challenging in such a short period of time.”

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