The Establishment of a National System of Food Inspection in Canada

By Ostry, Aleck; Shannon, Tara et al. | Canadian Journal of Public Health, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

The Establishment of a National System of Food Inspection in Canada


Ostry, Aleck, Shannon, Tara, Nathoo, Tasnim, Dubois, Lise, Canadian Journal of Public Health


Over the past decade, public and professional concern over the links between diet and ill health has grown enormously but in the relative absence of discussion about the policymaking levers currently in place to handle what is seen by some as an emerging public health crisis. How will nutrition policymakers tackle these difficult emerging health policy issues? What are the nutrition policymaking levers that are currently available to reverse the increasing levels of nutrition-related problems, such as the rising levels of diabetes and obesity observed in the population?

The federal government's system of food regulation (because it develops food standards, regulates food quality, and establishes standards for food advertising and labelling) is an important component of the nutrition policymaking machinery currently in place in this country. The structure of this system and the way in which it operates is integral to developing a nutrition policy for the 21st century.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the early evolution of this system of federal regulation (between 1874 and 1945) in order to enhance understanding of the roots of the present system. As the public and policy spotlight shines with increasing intensity on the nutrition policymaking system in Canada, as concerns about the links between diet and health grow, it is important for policymakers to have a basic understanding of the roots of at least this important component of the system.

Establishing the legislative framework

Canada's first food and drug act was passed in 1874, largely due to concerns over liquor contamination. To enforce the new legislation, a central laboratory was established in Ottawa.1

The chief analyst in Ottawa had by this time developed several standards for food. These defined foods positively in terms of their main chemical constituents. For example, at this time milk was commonly adulterated by the addition of water. A definition was therefore required that established a standard for the fat content in milk. Once such a standard was set, it was possible to declare deviations as adulterated.

However, in order to prosecute these cases successfully, these unofficial food standards had to be established in law. In 1890, an amendment to the act was passed that converted the few unofficial standards for food and drugs then in existence into official standards, making Canadian food adulteration law the most advanced in the world.2

Canada established more official food standards in 1909 for dairy products, meat, grain, maple products, and beverages. These were passed in 1911 by Order in Council and for the first time, gave the Canadian government the legal power to enforce the adulteration act.

The development of the professional food inspectorate

Initially, the civil service was ill equipped for successful prosecution for food contamination. In 1913, an order in council established new regional laboratories in Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver. By 1919, 25 food inspection districts were established in Canada, staffed with a professionally trained full-time inspectorate.3 The creation of official food standards in 1911, the development of regional laboratories and the subsequent establishment of a professional inspectorate laid the foundation for a fully functioning national system of food inspection by 1920.

Early work of the food inspectorate

Although the food and drug act was passed because of concerns regarding liquor, early food adulteration prosecutions dealt mainly with dairy products. In 1876, 60% of the milk sampled under the act was adulterated, mainly by addition of chalk and/or water. In the case of butter, approximately 50% of the samples tested by the public analyst were adulterated in the mid-1880s.1

The development of federal food standards, national laboratory capability, and an enforcement infrastructure by the 1920s was coincident with the establishment of provincial and municipal public health laws and systems to improve local milk and meat supplies. …

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