Contributing Lawyers

Canada

Cyndee Todgham Cherniak

United States

Susan Kohn Ross

Australia

Andrew Hudson



Canada Returned Bad Peanut Shipment 9 Months Ago

Once and a while a trade lawyer comes across a story of how the import laws saved lives.  This is means international trade can save lives because another set of eyes are watching out for consumers.  When the domestic controls in one country fail or are not constructed to detect a particular threat, the inspectors at the border in a friendly trading partner may have a different way of looking at things and may see the threat clearly.  The friendly trading partner may alert the home country of the threat and lives can be saved in both countries.

Unfortunately, the story that was reported in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper today is not a completely happy one.  Canadian officials rejected peanuts from the United States and the peanuts were sent back.  The U.S. officials became aware of the bad peanuts and did not adequately follow-up with the Peanut Corp. of America.  People have now died in the United States and we are left asking how this could have happened.

The Globe and Mail reports:

The first sign of trouble for Peanut Corp. of America, the company blamed for a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people in the United States and led to a massive product recall, was a tainted shipment of chopped peanuts that arrived in Canada last spring.

A customer in Canada rejected the peanuts, an act that may have saved lives here, and prompted officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to turn their attention to sanitary conditions in the Blakely, Ga., peanut plant at the centre of the outbreak.

It would seem to be a victory for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, proof that its system of inspection works.

The article goes on to tell the story:

The purchaser likely sent the shipment back to the manufacturer, and the U.S. FDA inspected the shipment when it arrived last April at a border crossing at Alexandria Bay, N.Y., across from the Thousand Islands in Southeastern Ontario.

The FDA report said it found a "filthy, putrid or decomposed substance," later identified as metal fragments.

But why did the FDA intercept the package? Was it warned by the CFIA? The agency can't say. A spokeswoman said it is extremely rare for peanuts to go from Canada to the United States, and that may have prompted the inspection.

Canada's rejection of the shipment has prompted criticism of the FDA from U.S. legislators, who wonder how it was that inspectors did not descend on the plant until months after Canada raised a red flag.

It was only in June that inspectors were sent to the plant, and then only to look for the source of the metal fragments, not salmonella.

Meanwhile, a private lab hired by the company to analyze the seized shipment deemed it fit for export. The FDA rejected those findings, and after months of back and forth, the shipment was destroyed.

Not long after, the first signs of a salmonella outbreak were spotted in the United States. Most of the more than 550 people affected fell ill after Oct. 1. Only one person in Canada, a man from New Brunswick, has reported illness related to the outbreak, and it's believed he ate contaminated food in the United States.

Wow - what a story of the system breaking down!

These stories are not isolated.  And, this is the reason why countries are starting to seriously consider improved consumer protection and food safety laws.  The regulatory environment is going to change in the near future.  Unfortunately, new regulations are not necessarily the answer.  Pushing costs on companies is not necessarily the solution. 

The first step is making sure the food inspection and consumer protection officials are doing their jobs.  The government agencies should do what the security regulations, such as C-TPAT, export controls, anti-bribery, etc. have been requiring of companies - they should conduct an internal audit to find out where are the problems in their internal reporting systems. 

While each story such as the story of the bad peanuts requires failures on the part of a company and a failure on the part of one or more governmewnt agencies, the answer is not additional compliance costs for all companies and no accountability for government.

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