The government-run inspection services of the U.S. and Canada are working with the produce industry to improve services as they deal with challenges of training and retaining their work forces. Meanwhile, Mexico is establishing a government sanctioned destination inspection service.

Next week: A look at the U.S. and Mexican inspection services.


(June 9) North American produce marketers want three-part harmony in government-run destination inspection services, and industry and government leaders in Canada are taking the lead in writing new sheet music.

While the U.S., Mexico and Canada have different regulations relating to packaging, labeling and origin information, the lack of harmonized procedures and grades for destination inspections remains a frustration to some produce operators. Credible government inspections are critical to resolving trade disputes among North American suppliers and receivers.

CANADIAN CANDOR

Canada’s destination inspection is perhaps under the greatest immediate scrutiny.

In an industry survey funded in 2001 by Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, the Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corp. issued a summary paper of recommendations for changes to the Canadian destination inspection services in December.

Stephen Whitney, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa-based DRC, said the summary paper recommends a harmonized grade system and uniform produce inspection procedures between the U.S. and Canada.

It also suggests that a service agreement, including expectations about the timeliness of inspections, be negotiated between the Canadian industry and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Karen Prang, national manager of the Fresh Products Section of the CFIA, Ottawa, said she doubted whether a service agreement or contract would be in play by December.

Whatever the outcome of the talks, there is industry demand for a more responsive service.

Jim Gordon, director of produce operations for Sobey’s Inc., Belton, Ontario, said the timeliness of inspection results is not an issue for Sobey’s as much as the quality of inspections.

“I have two facilities in the greater Toronto area, and I can call inspection on the exact same product and the results are so disparate you can’t forward them to the shipper,” he said.

One part of a load could be inspected to show no problem and the other part might show 20% out of grade, he said.

Generally speaking, Gordon said inspectors at the Ontario Food Terminal Market in Toronto are better trained than ones placed off the market.

“The fact is that if you are away from the Ontario food terminal, you are using a CFIA office that may not justify a produce-only inspector,” he said.

Inspectors who are cross-trained in meat inspection and produce don’t have the same skills as the produce-only inspectors, he said. The lack of consistency and detail in inspections is a problem, he said.

Adet Thomas, fresh fruit and vegetable program specialist with the CFIA, said the agency must be better prepared to serve chain stores as they set up distribution facilities away from terminal markets.

MISSION CONTROL

The friction between Canadian receivers and the CFIA in part is attributed to the fact that inspectors — belonging to a union — wear more than one hat.

Besides produce destination inspections, CFIA inspectors sample for chemical and microbiological contamination.

CFIA inspectors also are involved in shipping point, export and import inspections throughout the provinces.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point with Canadian receivers is that inspectors are charged with enforcing minimum grade standards on nine commodities.

Vicky Saliba, inspector with the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program of the CFIA, said Canadian receivers are reluctant to call for a destination inspection for those commodities — apples, beets, carrots, cabbage, onions, parsnips, pears, potatoes and rutabagas.

If any of those commodities — either shipped from another province or imported — don’t make minimum grade standards, the CFIA must detain the load.

While most shippers were willing to discuss adjustment because of quality issues without calling for an inspection, Gordon said there were occasions when an inspection was called by the shipper.

“Lo and behold, the (loads) were detained, and they were detained in my building,” he said.

A detained load creates red tape, Gordon said, because the CFIA must certify that the load is regraded, dumped or donated.

“In most cases, the shipper understands the rules, and they ask for details of the problem and find a home for the product rather than call for an inspection,” Gordon said.

Other drawbacks to the system of enforcing grade standards for the nine commodities, the DRC paper said, include:

  • It may increase the amount of poor quality produce in the market.

  • It promotes the use of other third-party inspection services and takes away the financial viability of the CFIA.

  • It undercuts the ability of the DRC to provide uniform and equitable services for all produce commodities because the DRC uses an inspection-based model to resolve disputes.



WISH LIST

Saliba said Canadian wholesalers also want the CFIA inspectors to be able to grade to U.S. standards.

Jeff Honey, director of inspection services for the Ontario Produce Marketing Association — a Toronto-based third-party alternative to CFIA inspectors — said U.S. grade standards are better defined.

“The majority of USDA grades have more detail. They explain tolerance a little better as well,” he said.

As it stands, Canadian authorities can only say product meets the equivalent Canadian grade standard, Saliba said.

Whitney envisions a day when citrus receivers in New York, Montreal and Mexico City all have the same inspection standard for citrus.

“That would be a nice change,” he said.

Gordon said harmonization of grade standards would be beneficial, since there can be three or four grades for the same product packed in four containers.

Even so, harmonizing grades — a distant goal — may not solve all issues relating to acceptable arrival standards. He noted that Sobey’s specifications are even more stringent than government grades, even though the contract of sale is always Canadian No. 1.

“There is a gray area between minimum specs and our specs,” Gordon said.

HARMONY

Changes to the Canadian system won’t necessarily come easily, taking into account the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy and the possible reservations of Canada’s unionized inspectors.

Saliba said harmonization of inspection services would have to be written into Canadian regulations.

For harmonization of grade standards, inspectors in Canada would have to be trained, but she said most Canadian inspectors already know many U.S. grades.

Thomas said U.S. regulations don’t give authority to Canadian inspectors to grade product on U.S. standards.

“(The U.S.) would have to make changes in their regulations for us to do that,” he said.

Whitney said a meeting planned in June will renew dialogue between the industry and the CFIA.

Gordon said discussions between the industry and the CFIA are positive, and he said he is optimistic that improvements can be made to the government inspection service.

If that doesn’t happen, a complicated process of creating an industry-run inspection service would have to be undertaken. Giving legitimacy and consistency to such inspections, Gordon said, would be harder than fixing the CFIA.