Testing is a tool for trade mischief

Recently there has been a flurry of annoying arbitrary trade actions by different countries against imported Canadian agricultural commodities.

Recently there has been a flurry of annoying arbitrary trade actions by different countries against imported Canadian agricultural commodities. The Chinese have taken steps to prevent or restrict imports of Canadian canola seed because they claim it is contaminated by a plant disease called blackleg. The Americans are trying to stop imports of canola meal from Canada because they claim it is contaminated with salmonella. The European Union is trying to stop flax imports from this country because they claim it contains genetically modified (GM) seed. As expected all these countries demand that Canada test all those exports at our expense and that the tests must meet almost zero tolerance standards. Curiously, these contaminations never seemed to be a problem before – why the sudden interest?

As one might expect officials from all of those countries throwing up trade barriers proclaim that these are either food safety measures or preventing the spread of disease. Conveniently, those steps supersede all trade agreements and can be enacted almost immediately and usually involve a laborious bureaucratic process to undue. When such action is taken, the impact on the market is almost immediate and prices take a hit all along the marketing chain. Producers and processors then begin clamoring the government to fix the problem. Trade officials instinctively expect that there will be a trade price to pay to normalize the situation, which is usually the motive of the countries throwing up the barriers.

None of the recent incidents have any basis in science or common sense, of course, but then, none of that is required when alleged food safety or disease issues are involved. Just a suspicion or perception is all that matters to stop imports of the supposed offending product.

For instance, the Chinese stopped canola imports because of concerns with a canola disease called blackleg. That’s fair enough if it would prevent the spread of the disease, but the fact is, blackleg has been present in similar crops in China for years. Stopping imports will not eliminate the disease. Clearly they want to protect the local product from competition or some other trade offset. The Europeans amazingly discovered GM seed in flax imports. That’s curious because no GM flax is being grown commercially in Canada. But then the EU remains absolutely paranoid about GM, but it is a rather duplicitous position as their own scientists support GM plants, but it is a handy trade barrier. Interestingly, the EU and Canada are in the midst of free trade discussions. It would be nothing new to use such a stunt to pressure Canadian negotiators for trade concessions.

The American action against canola meal is also rather baseless. Their claim that the meal is contaminated is spurious indeed, considering that salmonella is virtually present in the entire environment and food chain everywhere. It’s like saying that we won’t buy any American fruits and vegetables unless they can be proven not to carry salmonella. It’s ridiculous but not to the highly protectionist US government who see that this may be a way to improve prices for their own canola meal and particularly soya meal which is a competing product. As you might expect the U.S. is probably not testing their own meals for salmonella contamination. That would be pointless since salmonella is everywhere and would be found.

For the Americans this is more a way of striking back at importing countries like Russia and China, who regularly use salmonella contamination in US chicken imports as an excuse to stop those imports. Canada it seems gets caught in the trade crossfire. We are an easy target because we usually do not retaliate.

I expect that many of these trading annoyances would be kept in check if Canada was more proactive in testing imported food products. Basically because of limited resources, food entering Canada is rarely tested, apparently we take the word of exporting countries that their food is safe. That’s how all that poisoned pet food entered Canada a few years ago.

Such diseases as salmonella, E.Coli. Listeria etc. would be easy to find on imported food, especially fresh products, with those pathogens being everywhere. Banned pesticides have been found in the past and are surely to be found on flower imports which are handled and even breathed in by Canadians. But Canada, ever the boy scout of the trading world, would sheepishly just warn the offending countries if ever caught rather than use testing to make a point or protect a local market.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see Canada retaliate by testing imports, claiming contamination and make these trade bullies eat their own words and actions? But don’t hold your breath – it’s un-Canadian to demand and force trading countries to be fair and honest in trade issues or face the consequences in our home markets.