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Canadian romaine requirement could be a costly precedent

New Canadian food safety import requirements for U.S. romaine lettuce could cost the Canadian industry between $11 million and $13 million per week, and the mandate to test Salinas Valley romaine for E. coli add to costs for California shippers.

Even more concerning, industry leaders say, is the precedent the testing mandate will have on future trade between the two countries.

“CPMA will continue to work with both industry and government to endeavor to mitigate this impact as much as possible; our goal is to avoid a similar situation as we all move forward,” said Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

Jane Proctor, vice president of policy and issue management for CPMA, said CPMA is developing a task force made up of approximately 10 industry food safety experts from both Canada and the U.S.

"The intended task is to review the CFIA requirements for romaine imports from the U.S., as currently written, to identify issues including with sampling and testing as included in the requirements, including how the current requirements will affect the supply chain," Proctor said.

The task force will also provide suggestions back to CFIA on how to make the procedure workable for industry, she said in an e-mail Oct. 9.

Although the FDA and the CFIA are in continued discussions on the romaine import regulations, the requirements remain in place, according to a public affairs spokesperson for the CFIA in an Oct. 9 e-mail.

Lemaire said new water measures put in place by the Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements have already raised the bar for food safety of romaine this year.

“We’re very confident that Canadians would have been able to enjoy romaine in a safe way, but the unintended consequences of putting the testing in place means (some) shippers deciding not to ship and shortages potentially occurring in the market because of those decisions,” he said.

CPMA estimates a drop of $11 million to $13 million in trade a week until production shifts away from the Central Coast region in California.

California viewpoint
The hope among shippers is that something can be done to change the Canadian import rules, said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California LGMA.

“It is just going to be very difficult to comply.”

Horsfall said one industry concern is that the Canadian action could be a precedent that might be used for other commodities.

“I think it’s an issue that should be of concern to people because these things have to be done in a way that makes sense, both scientifically and practically,” he said.

“The imposition of this type of requirement at the last minute is really problematic.”

He said Canada’s post-harvest E. coli testing requirement hasn’t proven to be an effective way to protect consumers in the past.

“You just can’t test your way to food safety,” Horsfall said, citing the greater importance of prevention measures on the farm and in facilities.

“I think the hope is that, through discussions and through collaboration with the two governments, that something a little more reasonable can be accomplished,” he said. “Certainly, for October and November, you are talking about a lot of romaine (shipments) that potentially aren’t going to go to Canada.”

Issues like cold storage, shelf life and transportation needs complicate Canada’s testing requirement, said De Ann Davis, senior vice president of science at Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.
Testing for E. coli on romaine may take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours, she said.

“So that is two days of cold storage space that’s needed,” she said, in addition to the needs of other orders and the other romaine that is associated with that harvest lot.

“I think the concern is that if this is a precedent set by the Canadian government, and the way that they want to manage romaine from a longer-term standpoint, then there will be economic impact,” she said. “People will be more conservative in planting and it will impact trade.”

Davis said Western Growers has concerns about the seasonal transition between Salinas and desert growing regions next March and whether CFIA will put in place another testing requirement.
“And what about other crops? Leafy greens is not alone in terms of recent outbreaks,” she said.