by SUSAN MANN
AgriRecovery was there to help farmers in big disasters related to excessive rain but assistance for other problems was slow, says Auditor General Michael Ferguson in his report released yesterday.
It has not delivered timely assistance for many disease and drought-related disasters and it seldom met the 45-day target for assessments, Ferguson says in the AgriRecovery section’s conclusion in his report.
AgriRecovery is a federally and provincially shared disaster relief program. It assesses disasters affecting Canadian farmers case-by-case and responds, where necessary, with targeted assistance.
Ontario and western Quebec farmers experienced the poor response from AgriRecovery firsthand when they endured the worst drought in decades in 2012, says Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales.
“You have a drought on the Prairies and boom, it’s simple and quick and they cut a cheque,” he says. But with the Ontario drought the assessment took far longer than it should have and “it was far more complicated than it should have been and it really was difficult for anybody to get much of anything out if it, which was not the point,” he says.
In the end, only farmers with breeding stock qualified for assistance, but all animals must eat. “It wasn’t just breeding stock that was short of hay, it was everybody was short of hay,” Wales notes.
Brian Gilroy, chair of the Ontario Apple Growers, on the other hand, says it was understandable governments took their time when responding to the frost damage that decimated Ontario’s 2012 apple and tender fruit crops.
“It makes sense the government would react quicker to bigger disasters because it’s very clear in most situations,” Gilroy says. But the situation apple and tender fruit growers faced in 2012 required a lot of estimating and calculating. “They have to get it right and there are many factors influencing” program delivery, he says.
Meanwhile, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz sidestepped the auditor general’s criticisms of AgriRecovery. “Our government agrees with the two-thirds of producer groups surveyed by the auditor general that said AgriRecovery was delivered in a timely fashion,” he said in a Nov. 26 statement. “Under Growing Forward 2 the AgriRecovery framework continues to be an effective tool to help farmers during times of natural disasters.”
The auditor general was also critical of how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency manages the food recall system. “Although CFIA acted promptly to investigate food safety concerns and verified that recalled products were removed from the marketplace, significant improvements to the food recall system were needed,” the auditor general says in his report.
The first three steps in the food recall process are generally working well but things fall apart in subsequent steps. “There were weaknesses in CFIA’s follow up activities after a product had been removed from the marketplace,” the auditor general says.
In addition, CFIA’s emergency response plan for food safety issues, used to manage three high profile recalls in 2012 including the XL Foods recall (the largest meat recall in Canadian history), has been in draft form since 2004. It has not been finalized or tested, Ferguson says. Activating the emergency processes created new governance structures. The changes contributed to confusion among staff and key stakeholders.
In a Nov. 26 statement, Health Minister Rona Ambrose says CFIA accepted all 11 recommendations from the auditor general’s report and has already completed one of them – better monitoring of corrective actions. Work is underway to address the other recommendations.
CFIA joined the health department in October. The alignment of CFIA under the Health Minister “puts a clear focus on consumer safety, focuses and clarifies accountabilities and presents new opportunities for closer collaboration among federal food safety partners,” the statement says.
Wales says CFIA’s work to implement the auditor general’s recommendations shows the agency is listening and “they’re willing to accept criticism and they’re willing to make changes” – unlike Ritz who is only listening “to the people who are saying it (AgriRecovery) is okay.
“He should be willing to take the criticism and he should be willing to fix it. That’s his job,” says Wales. BF