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CFIA canned potato review irritates farmers and shows depths of government secrecy

OTTAWA — The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wants to know what people think about the size of canned, cubed, white potatoes — but if you want to know exactly who asked for the change or why this is a priority exercise, you're out of luck.

OTTAWA — The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wants to know what people think about the size of canned, cubed, white potatoes — but if you want to know exactly who asked for the change or why this is a priority exercise, you're out of luck.

CFIA launched a month-long consultation on Jan. 21 after saying it had received a request from "industry" to change the maximum allowed size of diced, canned potatoes from 10 millimetres to 20 millimetres.

"Yes, we care about all potatoes — big and small," the agency tweeted. "These consultations stem from an industry request to produce larger cubes, which would allow them to get more Canadian potatoes to market."

The tweet was met with great delight by some Twitter users who jumped at the chance to show their proficiency in potato puns.

"I'm afraid most of us will never see eye to eye on this very important and somewhat unapeeling issue," commented Jeany Jerome.

Imagine the fun they might have had if they'd known the size change will affect all grades of canned, diced, white potatoes, including the lowly "Canada standard" grade, the higher-brow "Canada choice" grade, which can't include as many "irregularly shaped units," and the top grade, with the least defective pieces, with the prized label of "Canada Fancy."

Dozens of people replying seemed shocked to discover that canned potatoes existed in any format, but the vast majority deemed it an unusually trivial matter to be concerned about.

"With everything else going on in the world, this issue is small potatoes," a Twitter user named Holly wrote. 

For Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow, the consultation is a slap in the face to potato farmers in Prince Edward Island, who haven't been able to sell potatoes to their main export market in the United States for months because of a CFIA decision.

"Is CFIA misinformed on which potato crisis they should be addressing?" Barlow responded to the tweet.

In November the CFIA ordered a halt to U.S.-bound exports of all fresh and seed potatoes because the fungus that causes potato wart was found in two P.E.I. potato fields. The fungus disfigures potatoes but is not dangerous to people.

Negotiations are underway with the U.S. to get potatoes flowing again, but farmers said 300 million pounds of potatoes had to be destroyed because they couldn't be shipped last year.

In an interview, Barlow said he was "inundated with angry calls from stakeholders" who said the consultation on canned spuds sounded so preposterous they wondered if it was a joke.

"Honestly, I asked the same thing," he said. "I said, 'Was their account hacked? This can't be real.'"

It is, in fact, real. The CFIA will confirm at least that much. But they would not, despite repeated attempts, put up an official or agency expert to explain the consultation in more detail, including who specifically asked for the change or why 20-millimetre cubes could expand sales.

Eventually they got as far as to say the request came from "a food business" who had been given special permission to temporarily can bigger diced potatoes and wanted it to become permanent.

But no information on which company, or more detail on what the difference is between the two sizes of potatoes, was provided.

They did however say, with no hint of irony, that a cabinet directive means the regulations governing the size of canned vegetables can only be changed in a review that is "open, transparent and inclusive" with meaningful public engagement.

Mike Larsen, a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, said this is a particularly odd example of how badly Canada's transparency and access to information laws are in need of an update.

"I find this story to be simultaneously just weird but also really indicative of the tendency to have a very knee-jerk approach to secrecy and almost secrecy-by-default approach within government institutions," said Larsen, whose research focuses heavily on government secrecy and access to information laws.

"There's no state secrets to be protected here. We're talking about the consultation around the size of potatoes. I mean, literally it's a small potatoes issue."

P.E.I. potato farmer Alex Docherty's emotional frustration over the export ban and the consultations was clear in a Facebook video he posted showing him having to destroy hundreds of pounds of seed potatoes using a snowblower.

"All these three bins will eventually be emptied out and put through the snowblower and hopefully they'll meet CFIA specifications for the proper size of diced potatoes," Docherty said in the Jan. 27 video. "We know that's critical in their mind right now." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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