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Archived - Myth versus fact: defining the role of the CFIA Inspector General

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"Over time the role of our inspectors has continued to change and adapt with technology. But really if you distill it down to its most fundamental role, the role of an inspector, regardless of whether it's food safety, plant health or animal health is to ensure that the regulated parties in Canada that fall under our regulations are compliant and producing a product that's safe and ensuring that those products that we import and export are safe and contribute to the economic prosperity of Canada."

Scott Rattray, CFIA's Inspector General

In this podcast, the CFIA's Inspector General, Scott Rattray, clears up common misconceptions about inspection activities while discussing his role at the Agency.

Myth versus fact: defining the role of the CFIA's Inspector General – Audio Transcript

You're tuned in to Chronicle 360: the podcast that brings you closer to CFIA experts, exploring what we do and how we do it.

Host (Elena Koutsavakis): Myth or fact: CFIA inspectors only inspect food products. Every item you throw into your grocery cart has been given a onceover by a CFIA inspector. CFIA has inspectors working along “the world's longest undefended border” verifying the safety of products that cross into Canada.

Welcome to our Chronicle 360 podcast. I'm Elena Koutsavakis and I'll be your host for today's episode where we're going to establish myth versus fact on some basic questions of inspection. Joining me today over the phone is Scott Rattray, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Inspector General.

After getting his feet wet in the public service at a few departments like Parks Canada and Export Development Canada, Scott found his home here at the Agency in 2005. Over the years, Scott has had some pretty cool jobs at the Agency, holding executive positions in areas related to inspection, investigation and enforcement, all before becoming the Agency's Inspector General in 2019.

This makes Scott the perfect guest to help us answer: what does a CFIA inspector do? And what does a CFIA inspector not do? And while I had him on the hot seat, I also asked Scott about the role of Inspector General and how his office provides that additional assurance that the Agency's inspection work is effective at mitigating risks for Canadians.

So welcome to the podcast, Scott. We're happy to have you today. Thanks for joining.

Scott Rattray: Thanks Elena. It's nice to be here, thanks.

Host: So let's start off the podcast, Scott, with just a little game that I like to call myth versus fact. So I'm going to say a statement and then you can tell me – you guessed it – if it's a myth or if it's a fact. And feel free to elaborate or use the opportunity here to fix any misconceptions as well.

Scott Rattray: Alright.

Host: So here we go. Are you willing to play the game?

Scott Rattray: I'm willing to play the game. Let's go.

Host: So the first one. CFIA inspects restaurants.

Scott Rattray: One of the biggest misconceptions that are out there, whenever I tell a friend or if I'm at a party and I say I work at the Food Inspection Agency, everybody then wants to know what restaurants they should or they shouldn't eat at. That is a misconception. Restaurant inspection is handled by local Public Health.

Host: Okay, so we've clarified that for everybody. The next question: CFIA has inspectors at the Canada-US border.

Scott Rattray: Many years ago CFIA had a border presence. But with the establishment of the Canada Border Services Agency, the CBSA took over our role at the border. There are occasions, however, on technical matters, oftentimes around plant health or animal health, where they need to call in our specialists. So we will go to the border to assist the CBSA but no, typically we do not have staff stationed at the border on a regular basis.

Host: Okay. And the last one here. All food is looked at by the CFIA before it is sold.

Scott Rattray: Yeah, another misconception that we have to deal with a lot. And the reality is with the volume of food that is grown, exported, imported, bought and sold, it is impossible for every single piece of food that we put into our mouths has passed through the hands of the CFIA inspector.

We rely on audit based systems to ensure that those that grow, produce, manufacture, trade in food have food safety systems for which they're responsible for or accountable for. And we will go in and look at those systems. We will take samples. We are present at food manufacturing facilities. We're in many places, but no, we don't inspect every single piece of food.

Host: So we'll start off the conversation talking about just the role of inspection in general. So my guess is that some listeners to the program think that we just have inspectors in maybe food processing facilities and that's it. Or they might think that we're wearing trench coats and have Go Go Gadget arms, right? Like I'm exaggerating but I really want you to take us back a step and give us a picture of what is a CFIA inspector, who are they and what do they do?

Scott Rattray: Yeah, I guess the first place I'd start is the name of the Agency really doesn't do us any favours when asked to describe the scope of what we do because, as you just referred to, we are much more than food. Really our job is to ensure that the health and the robustness and the safety of the entire agricultural resource base in Canada, so this includes animal health, plant health and, as you said, food safety.

Over time the role of our inspectors has continued to change and adapt with technology. But really if you distill it down to its most fundamental role, the role of an inspector, regardless of whether it's food safety, plant health or animal health is to ensure that the regulated parties in Canada that fall under our regulations are compliant and producing a product that's safe and ensuring that those products that we import and export are safe and contribute to the economic prosperity of Canada.

Host: Now if you don't mind, I'd like to kind of – I'd like to know more about you and your title of Inspector General. So it's a hefty title. You kind of sound like a big deal. Can you explain what the role of that position is?

Scott Rattray: Yeah, the Inspector General's Office (IGO) was established in 2014. So we've been around for a while, but certainly external to the CFIA.

Really, the Inspector General function was born out of a recognition that more could be done to ensure the rigour of our inspection activities and a recognition that a national oversight function was required to provide assurance on inspection delivery.

It allows for another set of critical eyes, but it's more than simply just checking to see if our inspectors are doing their jobs. It allows us to interact with frontline staff to hear what challenges they may have as they do their duties. An effective inspection function relies on training, guidance, the Information Management and Information Technology (IMIT) tools, and we consider all these things when we do our work. And the goal is to identify opportunities both at a local level, but also systemic or enabling functions that could be improved that support inspection delivery.

Host: So I guess walk us through like maybe a typical day a little bit, about the role of your office and what are the main responsibilities. So what's a day like for you or maybe those people that work on your team?

Scott Rattray: So really the main responsibility of a Verification Officer is conducting what I'd call objective analysis through visual walk-throughs of an establishment, document review, and interacting with frontline staff.

So typically when we do a verification, let's say in the food business line, our Verification Officers will spend a couple of days on-site with those staff that are assigned to a regulated party, an establishment. It includes a visual walk-through of those premises and it includes going through documentation just to look at how information is recorded, compliance action that's been taken, follow up and to spend some time with our inspection staff, really just learning from them how they do their jobs, how they come to the decisions that they've taken and what challenges that they may be encountering in being able to do their jobs effectively.

Host: So how do the inspectors that are let's say working in a meat processing establishment, do they know that your office is coming, those verification teams are coming? How do they feel about you coming? Does the industry have a heads-up? Like how does that actually work?

Scott Rattray: We've operated off the principle of unannounced visits. We have long subscribed to the belief that if we come without a whole lot of lead time or notice, that the visit will be undertaken in a manner that gives a true depiction of what that establishment is like.

Host: And when you talk about these visits, is it always at an establishment, like a bricks and mortar type building, or are there other, sort of areas across the country?

Scott Rattray: Yeah that's a great question, because I think a lot of people associate the IGO with our visits to meat establishments. Meat inspection no doubt occupies a huge amount of our inspection resources at the CFIA, but it's certainly not the only thing that we do.

Historically, a lot of our work has been undertaken at an establishment, a bricks and mortar facility. And what you get from that is assurance that that particular establishment and the staff that are assigned to it are doing their jobs in a manner that's compliant with operational guidance.

We have done verifications at all food commodity establishments, and over the last couple of years we've started to expand our verification activities increasingly into plant health and animal health.

Plant health and animal health, they don't have the same kind of bricks and mortar locations for us, so we will refer to those as inspection sites. So if we're looking at live animal export, those activities can be done at an airport, they could be done in an auction market, they could be done at a border. And I feel it's equally important to have our staff out interacting with inspectors at those sites as it is at a bricks and mortar registered meat plant.

Host: Right. Is there any misconceptions that you want to kind of use the opportunity today to address, whether it's with our own inspectors that work out in the field or maybe with those industry – like the business owners in those plants, or even just for Canadians of what the role of your team is?

Scott Rattray: Yeah I think probably the thing that I would most like to convey is that it's not our primary focus to go and make sure that our inspection staff are doing their jobs. It's much more nuanced than that. And when it's described that way, that sounds purely like an accountability exercise, you know, we're here to make sure you're doing your job.

What we try to do is to make it as much about learning, for us and for the organization. So of course going and reviewing paperwork on-site, doing a walk-through of a plant just to ensure that there isn't any sort of egregious food safety violation occurring, that's an important part of what we do.

Overwhelmingly our inspection staff are committed to delivering on the mandate and they want to do a good job.

Host: So do you think there's a misconception specifically about the role of the Inspector General that you'd want to correct?

Scott Rattray: Yeah, I think it's that I'm not the CFIA's Chief Inspector. The title of Inspector General is much more widely used in the United States, and its typically a senior level position that includes things like internal audit, evaluation, investigations, values and ethics, etc. My role is more limited than that, and it's really about providing oversight of inspection activities to the Vice-President of Operations.

But because we have “inspection” in the title of the Agency, my role is occasionally thought to be the one accountable for all inspection delivery. My role is an internal function that doesn't get involved in mediating disputes with regulated parties or taking inspection decisions.

I'm proud of my title. My parents think it sounds really impressive. I'm not the Agency's top inspector. I'm there to provide assurance that inspection delivery is done in compliance with internal guidance and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Host: So I guess that comes to my next question which is – our listeners might not know, but we're not talking today in-studio. We're actually talking from our home offices, because like many Canadians, COVID-19 changed how and where we work and do our jobs. So how has the work of your office changed in light of some of the travel restrictions that are in place and the requirement to keep our employees safe? Are they still going in person? Are they conducting these verification checks virtually? How has that changed?

Scott Rattray: The reality is, when you put the work of the IGO up against the critical priorities that the Agency is focusing on right now, IGO verifications are less of a priority. And the reason for that is we're trying to minimize the impact on frontline staff. And the reality certainly as illness counts were increasing in the spring, and unfortunately it looks like we're headed back down that path again, companies don't want any more visitors to their establishments than they have to.

So typically the regulated parties have no issue with our staff coming in, but because of COVID that's really been curtailed over the last few months. And because a number of our verification officers are frontline inspectors that are on assignment to us – they come in on 2 year assignments through a competitive process – as pressure has increased on the regions, we've let a number of those staff return to their home organization.

So there are projects that we're still working on, but we're spending a lot of time on planning, developing our own internal guidance, finishing some projects that we started pre-COVID.

Look, our staff want to be out in the field doing verifications like we normally do, but we're trying to embrace this down time to focus on the things we normally don't get to focus on. We're proud of the fact that we can supplement frontline inspection by returning our staff back, and when we do get back, we'll have a solid plan and a renewed approach on how to do verifications again when this resumes.

Host: So I mean let's go back to March 11. So that's the day we all know is when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. How did we mobilize in that moment to ensure we were still providing inspection oversight?

Scott Rattray: one of the things that CFIA has always done really, really well is respond to a crisis. I think you see, you see the best of the CFIA when we're having to deal with a high pressure situation that requires planning and action. COVID was unique, but it was just another one of those times where we had to come together and concentrate our efforts to deal with a crisis.

So going back to that time in March, as we often do when faced with something of this magnitude, we stood up our national incident response team as has happened in the past. I participated in that function, not in my capacity as Inspector General, but really supporting an incident commander to ensure that we had everything from personal protective equipment for our staff, a recalibration of those inspection activities that we needed to continue to do to ensure food safety and food security in Canada.

As you recall, there was a panic buying on a number of products. It wasn't just toilet paper. It was also hard to find for a while meat products in the grocery store. So certainly food security became a huge priority for us, and in no way did we want to be seen as the rate limiting step as already stretched food producers were trying to keep up with demand.

So that incident command team was really essential, certainly in the initial stage in dealing with this crisis. Over the course of time, dealing with this has rolled back into regular business.

Host: It's kind of like everything. It's all the new normal for us, right? I think everyone has accepted now that it's kind of a long haul, right? So operating in the COVID-19 environment is kind of the – it's the new normal for a bit, I suppose.

So let me ask you, Scott, what are you most proud of, or maybe what do you hope to be the most proud of when you look back at your time as Inspector General? Because unlike, you know, what's in the news right now, it's not an American Supreme Court Justice job. You don't get it for life. There will be a time when you're not the Inspector General anymore. So what do you want to look back on and feel very proud of?

Scott Rattray: I think my biggest challenge, and if I can leave this job feeling that I've addressed it then it's a success, has been getting the IGO function to be seen as value added and to be welcomed by frontline staff. Achieving success here really is mostly up to me and my team.

Frontline inspection staff are busy. And no one celebrates the day they find out we're coming to watch them do their jobs. But my hope is that if we listen to them and we advocate for the frontline staff and if we give senior managers in the organization high-quality analysis that not only identifies problems but identifies solutions, that we will be seen as a valuable contribution to not only Operations Branch inspection delivery but to the Agency.

And maybe it's naïve, but I hope one day that maybe even people will look forward to us coming to visit and management teams will be thankful that we came and provided the service that we do to them.

Host: Okay Scott, I can't thank you enough for taking the time today, for chatting with me. I know you're a very, very busy man so thank you, thank you, thank you. It's been a great conversation. You've been a great guest. Can we invite you back in the future?

Scott Rattray: Yeah, it was my pleasure and I'm always happy to come back.

Host: Excellent. Now to our listeners, I hope today's episode gave you a little more insight into how CFIA inspectors work hard to safeguard Canada's food, plants and animals. Thank you for listening, thank you for taking the time. That's our story. For Chronicle 360, I'm Elena Koutsavakis.

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[End of recording]

Scott Rattray, CFIA's Inspector General

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