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You asked, we answer

Earlier this year, we asked for your questions. This podcast, we answer them!

We reached out to experts across the country to get answers about travelling with food, alcohol labelling, pet food, chicken hatcheries, allergen recalls and much more.

Your questions, we answer – Audio Transcript

Michelle Strong (co-host): You're up, Greg.

Greg Rogers (co-host): Oh, I see. It is recording. That's good.

Michelle: How do we want to start? Right on time.

Greg: On today's episode, we're actually going to be answering some questions that we got from the general public.

Greg: If you've already eaten some of the food from the package, can you still return it?

Michelle: We get a lot of questions about pet food.

Greg: Can you bring homemade food into Canada?

Greg: Now, with the pandemic, I know a lot of people, including my wife, have become completely obsessed with plants.

Michelle: If a cat or a dog takes a bite of your food, is it safe to eat it?

Greg: Have you ever been shopping for a bottle of wine and wondered what all the calories were?

Michelle: So which one should we start with?

Greg: Hey, it's Greg.

Michelle: And it's Michelle and this is Inspect and Protect.

Greg: A podcast where we like to talk about, well, lots of stuff. But mostly about plant health and animal health and food safety.

Greg: So Michelle, when you started at the CFIA, what did you really think we did here?

Michelle: Good question. Ok truth bomb. When I was a kid I thought the CFIA was an inspector, just like checking in on restaurants to make sure they were up to code. But yeah, 25 years later, here we are. Obviously, my view has changed.

Greg: I can totally relate. It was pretty much the same for me and I still get questions from friends and family about, you know, about that kind of thing.

Michelle: Yeah. I'm super pumped to dive into this just because after we did a call out in February, it's when we asked you to ask us anything. And we have a wide range of questions and answers to share on today's episode. Your questions come to us from comments and like DM's on social media and our public inquiries team too. So we got them from everywhere.

Greg: Yeah. And then we reached out to experts across the agency to get the answers to these questions. Stuff about allergies, food recalls, best before dates, pet food.

Michelle: So which one should we start with?

Greg: Well, I think everyone can relate to food. Let's start with that.

Michelle: All right. All right. Let's check it out. This first question comes to us from S.R.G. on Facebook.

Greg: We're joined today by Fred Jamieson. It's great to have you back on the podcast Fred. Can you remind me what your role is here at the Agency?

Fred Jamieson (guest): I work as a Food safety recall specialist.

Greg: Awesome. So the question is, when an alert goes out that there may be allergy causing ingredients in a food product, is it still safe to consume if you have no food allergies of any sort?

Fred: Yes. If the notification is for that group of consumers that have a specific reaction or an allergic reaction to that specific component, then there's like the ten priority allergens. So if you don't have one of those, feel free to consume. I always look at the other issue is that that's a personal issue. But given the product, if you're a parent or a teacher or grandparent or in a large family, you may want to also consider if other people in the house are going to consume it, make sure that they're notified so that somewhere down the line it's not inadvertently consumed by someone that does have that allergy.

Greg: Now, I have a question, a follow up question of my own. If, when you get a recall, if you've already eaten some of the food from the package, can you still return it? Can you still bring it in?

Fred: Absolutely. A lot of retailers may not want it, but in many cases, with the 1-800 numbers or even with different email addresses on the packaging, often they'll send you out a coupon or restitution for the money that you bought.

Greg: And what would you say are some of the most common allergens that we see in Canada?

Fred: Well, it's an excellent question and that would be peanuts, tree nuts, egg milk, sesame seed. Then you have seafood, which would also include any fish, crustacean or shellfish. You have soy and then you have wheat and mustard.

Greg: Well, thanks, Fred. It's great chatting with you again.

Fred: Always a pleasure.

Greg: So we got another question about allergens, but it wasn't really for the CFIA. So we reached out to our Health Canada colleagues, who provided us the answer! The question is from K.R. on Facebook, who asks: why are "may contain allergens" statements optional in Canada?

Michelle: Our Health Canada colleagues indicated that "may contain" allergen statements are not considered optional if the food could pose a risk to allergic consumers. Health Canada says that: a manufacturer of a food that is or may be cross contaminated with a food allergen has a responsibility under the Canadian Food and Drugs Act to warn allergic consumers. Pre-packaged foods that contain a priority food allergen as a result of cross contamination and that do not provide any precautionary statement on their label would be subject to enforcement action by the CFIA.

Greg: Good to know. Okay moving on to our next topic.

Greg: So Michelle, ever wondered what all the different dates on your food packaging mean? Have a listen to this.

Laura Reid (guest): So my name is Laura Reid, and I'm currently the Acting Manager for the food labeling team in the Agency's Policy and Programs Branch.

Greg: So Laura, today we have a question from C.B. on Facebook. Why isn't it mandatory for all products to list manufacture or production dates on the label?

Laura: That is a really great question. So information on dates, on pre-packaged foods is a really important way to communicate with consumers. So it's a bit of a balancing act between providing enough information for consumers to make their decisions while avoiding unnecessary burden for industry. But we do have certain foods that require labels. Those would include expiry dates, best before dates or manufacture dates in some cases.

Greg: So are there specific kinds of foods that require like it's mandatory to have the production date listed on them?

Laura: For sure there are. So, for example, some meat products and certain seafood products like clams and oysters are required to have manufacturing or production dates or a harvest date in the case of the seafood products. You've probably noticed, like I have, that a lot of foods do carry a manufacturing date because that information is important to consumers and it can be added voluntarily.

Greg: So here is a follow up question, from another Facebook user: Should we remove the best before label on some products? Like I just finished my jug of maple syrup marked as best before February 16th, 2021, which is well over a year ago. But it still tastes great. And I've never been sick after eating it.

Michelle: Okay, Greg, you got to tell me the truth here. Did you plant this? I know how much you love maple syrup. This was you, wasn't it?

Greg: Well, I have consumed a jug of maple syrup before. Not on my own, but largely on my own. But I swear it wasn't me. So let's hear what the experts have to say about C.B's question.

Laura: So best before dates indicate things like freshness and taste, and they are required on pre-packaged foods that have a durable life date of 90 days or less. But we often see them on foods that have a life of more than 90 days, such as maple syrup. So those dates can be voluntarily added in that case. A best before date tells you that the unopened food will keep its freshness, its taste, its nutritional qualities, and anything else claimed by the manufacturer until that date. But as you can imagine, the shelf life may change once the food has been opened. So as long as you've stored your food properly, it should definitely be safe to consume after the best before date.

Greg: It's interesting. No, I think we could do a whole podcast. But I would have many, many questions.

Laura: You know what? Before I took this job, so did I. But I didn't realize how many questions I had about labeling until I started to learn what some of the rules were and how important labels are for Canadians.

Greg: I just want to be able to win some marital disputes about what's safe and what's not, right, like…

Laura: Good luck!

Greg: I have some coconut oil that's supposed to supposedly expired, but nobody's complaining about my banana muffins I've been making lately, so.

Laura: Well, there you go.

Greg: Our next question is a very interesting one. C.B from Facebook asked us: Why isn't it mandatory for alcohol products to disclose all ingredients on the label? For example, have you ever been shopping for a bottle of wine and wondered what the calories were, or why there isn't the full list of ingredients?

Michelle: Our Health Canada colleagues also helped us answer this one! Here's what they shared with us. At the federal level, Health Canada regulates it as a food under the Food and Drugs Act. Standardised alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, vodka, gin, rum and whiskey do not need to show a list of ingredients on the label because there are compositional standards for these types of alcohol, meaning they have strict requirements as to which ingredients and manufacturing processes are permitted. On the other hand, unstandardized alcoholic beverages such as cream liqueurs, coolers and cocktails like martinis or mojitos, they require a complete list of ingredients and their components. And if the alcoholic beverage makes a nutrient content claim, for example a beer low in carbohydrates, which we are seeing more often these days, then they must carry a Nutrition Facts table. They would also have to indicate on the label if any priority allergens have been used in the beverage, which could be listed in a "contains" statement, as opposed to an ingredient list.

Michelle: This next question really brings me back to the scene in the movie Beethoven. Do you remember that Saint-Bernard?

Greg: I'm probably too old.

Michelle: No, it was like the early nineties. The dog shares an ice cream cone with a child. He'd been everywhere, super dirty, and then shares the snack like back and forth. It was a super cute scene, but pretty gross when you think about it now. Which leads us to this next question.

Michelle: R.V. on Facebook asked us: if a cat or a dog takes a bite of your food, is it safe to eat it after?

Greg: This one was also for Health Canada and they said: if an animal gets to your food and takes a bite out of it, your food is now unfortunately contaminated. Don't eat it. The reason? Pets can sometimes carry germs that could make you sick.

Michelle: And that's a great lead into our next topic. We get a lot of questions about pet food, so let's get into it with our next expert.

Suminder Sawhney: I'm Suminder Sawhney. I'm currently working as a National Manager for Animal Products and By-Products.

Michelle: I think that we get a lot of questions at the CFIA, on Facebook even, on what is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's role when it comes to importing or exporting pet food?

Suminder: I'll split it into 2 parts, basically on the domestic side and on the import and export side. So CFIA has no legal authority in domestic manufacture of pet food. There is no overarching Canadian legislation that regulates the manufacture of pet food for domestic use and consumption. But there is the Canadian pet food manufacturers that are the members of the Pet Food Association of Canada, and they follow the nutritional standards which are set out by American Association of Feed Control officials. When we talk about on the import side, under the health of animals regulation, the CFIA has the authority to regulate the importation of products or by products of animal origin, including pet food, in order to prevent the entry of regulated diseases into Canada, such as foot and mouth disease, African swine fever and highly pathogenic avian influenza. On the export side, again, the CFIA had the authority to regulate the pet food in order to meet the foreign trading importing countries' requirements.

Michelle: So if I understand correctly, the CFIA is involved when it comes to import and export of pet foods, but from a disease prevention angle?

Suminder: That's correct.

Michelle: Suminder, thank you so much for providing all of this information.

Greg: So the next question we have is about chickens.

Michelle: So who tells the funniest chicken jokes?

Greg: Eggs-cuse me.

Michelle: No. Nice, though. Comedi-hens. Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.

Greg: Well, yokes aside, the next question is about hens and disease prevention.

Teresa Cereno: So my name is Teresa Cereno. I've been with the CFIA for 13 years as a poultry veterinarian in charge of breeder and hatchery files.

Greg: So we had a question from B.B on Facebook: Is it safe to recycle old commercial hen layers? But before we get into it, can you explain what commercial hen layers are?

Teresa: In terms of the commercial layer, so these are the female birds that are bred to produce eggs. And so when you're asking, is it safe to recycle them? Yes, it is safe as long as you're going to continue to keep them in a safe environment. And you can continue keeping them even as long as 7 years.

Greg: So speaking of chickens, avian influenza is a big topic right now. Can you tell us a bit about the disease and what people who own chickens can do to help prevent it?

Teresa: Yes, avian influenza is definitely a big headline right now in Canada and in the entire world, actually. It's highly contagious and highly infectious, and it can affect the entire body system of a bird, especially chickens and turkeys. And what we know right now is that the avian influenza virus that is affecting Canada and even the U.S. is coming from wild birds. If you have backyard farms, it is very important that you keep your birds out of water sources because these are the places where waterfowls like wild geese and wild ducks will congregate. And through their fecal materials, your birds can get infected. So if you have enclosed spaces in your backyard, that would be the best place to keep them. If they notice any abnormal behavior in their birds, they should notify their veterinarian. And if they have access to a CFIA office like a district office, they should notify CFIA as soon as possible.

Greg: Thank you very much Teresa.

Greg: Alright, on to the next topic!

Michelle: We often get questions about traveling, wondering about what the rules are for bringing food into Canada from other countries.

Greg: C.D. from Facebook wants to know: Can I bring frozen chicken, potato or beef rotis from Barbados? And really, I think this question could apply to all types of food… So I reached back out to Suminder, our animal product and by-product expert. Suminder, can you bring homemade food into Canada?

Suminder Sawhney: Well, no, to be honest, and if someone wants to bring any sausages at the homemade stuff or that that's not allowed. I think it's very important before bringing any meat and meat products into Canada that travellers, they are encouraged to find out if that commodity is allowed and under what conditions. Meat and poultry products, including the fresh meat, may be imported from the United States of America for personal use. The contents must be clearly labeled and prove that the product originated in the US may be required. But for the rest of the countries, a maximum of 20 KGs of cooked, commercially sterile and commercially prepared in hermetically sealed packaging may be imported per person, and the packages must have the identifying marks indicating the products and the country of origin. Anything commercially which is cooked and sealed as I said earlier, that's allowed but not homemade.

Greg: So not only do we get questions about importing food, but plants too. And this is particularly relevant now with the pandemic. I know a lot of people, including my wife, has become completely obsessed with plants. So this one would be of interest to folks like that.

Mireille Marcotte: My name is Mireille Marcotte. I'm the National Manager of the Forestry and Horticulture Export section.

Greg: So the question we have from the public here today, we got this question, I think through just our generic contact line: what are the requirements when importing and exporting plants or seeds?

Mireille: Well, the requirements vary a lot depending on where you're importing from or where you're exporting to. So in both cases, the first thing to do is contact your local CFIA office because they're the one knowing their requirements, both for import and export. So they'll let you know if you need for import, for example, what kind of documents you need to have for the shipment to cross the border, what kind of labeling the seeds need to have, depending on where they're coming from. For exports, it's the same. You may require a phytosanitary certificate issued by the CFIA to accompany the seeds to the destination. Some countries may require testing, so you may need to get your seed tested for some diseases, for example, before being able to export.

Greg: So let's say I'm buying seeds online from another country. Is it my responsibility to make sure I'm allowed to do that?

Mireille: Yes, it is. Some websites may not provide all the documents or all the information related to imports into Canada. So if you're not informed and you're buying online, there's a risk that when it will reach the Canadian border, then the seeds would be rejected because they are not meeting their requirements.

Greg: So can a person get in trouble for importing plants or seeds and not abiding by the rules?

Mireille: Yes. For example, if you're shipping seeds to another country, to your friends or family and they're not meeting the requirements, the package will likely be rejected at destination, be destroyed, and the CFIA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, will receive a notice of non-compliance. So and then we'll contact you if it's the first time, you'll just be informed of their requirements. But if it's repeated offences, then there could be financial penalties associated with them. On the import side, your shipment risks being destroyed at the border.

Greg: Does this apply for something that might not even be an invasive species, just like an exotic houseplant that you're buying off Etsy or online or something like that?

Mireille: Yes, totally. The plant will likely need a phytosanitary certificate to come into Canada as well, or it may simply be prohibited. So you need to check in advance.

Greg: I know my house looks like a jungle. After the pandemic, we got big time into home gardening. So there's plants everywhere. And none that we're imported from other countries, just bought in stores and that kind of stuff, so. All right. Thanks, Mireille.

Michelle: So this last question, we touched bit on our past episode called I Found a Bug in my Food. But this question isn't about finding something odd in your food. It's about spotting something odd in the environment, maybe even in your backyard.

Bruno Gallant: Hi I'm Bruno Gallant. I'm with the Invasive Alien Species and Domestic Program section within the CFIA's Plant protection division.

Greg: We get this question a lot, Bruno. What do I do if I spot an unusual insect or plant? Where should I go?

Bruno: Thanks, Greg. First of all, it's important to notify the appropriate authorities that you found something that would be unusual. Plant pests, they do move around. And some of these species can invade different areas, whether the natural environment, the agricultural, forestry and cause serious damage. So for us, the primary goal is to prevent those species from even showing up. But if those efforts do fail, that's where we think it's very important that the public, with more eyes on the ground, that we can identify those situations and things that shouldn't be there. So in those situations, we would strongly encourage, to communicate with the CFIA Local Inspection Office, so whoever's closest to your area to let them know but also take notes, right? So if you have a phone available, take that out, take pictures, especially identify the location where you found that.

Greg: Are there any apps or websites that people can access to help them identify?

Bruno: There are a few apps out there that are actually becoming more and more popular over the years. In particular, there's iNaturalist, which is one of them. It's an app where you can identify finds, not necessarily unusual finds, but just different things that you find in the environment, post pictures, even consult with experts within that app. So that's one. There's also something called the EDDMapS. That's another app that you can use. And what's also interesting with these kinds of apps is that there are normally often sort of groups that are created within those apps that focus within your particular area.

Greg: Thanks Bruno!

Greg: So that was interesting, Michelle. You've got a wide range of questions. Yeah. It's pretty obvious we didn't plant these ones. Am I right?

Michelle: MmHmm. Honestly, I think we should do this every year. In fact, if you like this episode and you have any other questions, comment below or use the hashtag #InspectAndProtect so that we can look to answer your questions in a future episode.

Greg: You're listening to Inspect and Protect, CFIA's official podcast, where we talk about a lot of these subjects that you just heard, but mostly food safety, animal health and plant health.

[End of recording]

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