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Sealing the deal

October 5, 2016
Sealing the deal

The next time you purchase meat at a local butcher, buy berries from your favourite supermarket or take a walk through a pristine forest, offer a tip of the cap to the team led by Dr. Bruce Archibald and Carolina Giliberti at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The organization safeguards Canada’s food supply through a rigorous system of inspections and compliance enforcement. The CFIA does that by working with industry, consumers and federal, provincial and municipal stakeholders to help mitigate preventable health risks. From the way that animals are slaughtered and processed, to protecting the natural environment from invasive species and plant diseases, most Canadians would be surprised to know how much its work impacts their lives.

That reach extends well beyond food inspection. Archibald and Giliberti – the CFIA’s President and Executive Vice-President, respectively – oversee a large organization of some 6,750 employees with oversight over matters as disparate as agricultural policy, scientific innovation and even overseas trade and diplomacy. Not surprisingly, setting strategy for an agency with such a varied workforce and a complex mandate raises hurdles at almost every turn. “The fun thing about this place is that it’s very diverse and covers a wide range of subject matter and activities,” Archibald says at the CFIA’s Ottawa offices. “The

challenge of this place is that it’s very diverse and covers a wide range of subject matter and activities.”

As the world economy continues to globalize and Canada follows suit –particularly in the area of plant and animal imports – threats ranging from the spread of food-borne bacteria to crop-ravaging pests have become an increasing source of concern for the CFIA. Where production was once largely localized, food and plant products are now sourced from countries worldwide, not all of which have topnotch food safety systems. “There’s a great opportunity from a trade point of view, but also a great threat,” Giliberti says.

This fast-evolving reality raises the stakes for a senior leadership team that deals with a new food recall almost every day and, on rare occasions, outbreaks of viruses such as avian flu or bovine spongiform encephalopathy that threaten to shut down entire industries. Although the CFIA is a federal government agency, its challenges would be familiar to senior executives at any large corporation: namely, optimizing processes and systems to achieve key business goals in an era of rapid technological, economic and social change, while also engaging and motivating staff who must implement that new strategic approach.

“One of the successes for us last year was identifying what we needed to transform,” Giliberti explains. “It was about mapping out, in a systematic and simple way, the key milestones we were trying to achieve and when. We’ve created something called the Road Map. It allows us to take the key activities we’re working on and highlight significant milestones that we can celebrate when we achieve them.”

That need for a change in strategy was driven largely by the renewed mandate given to the CFIA with the passage of the Safe Food for Canadians Act in 2012. The new law consolidated and updated numerous pieces of legislation outlining CFIA activities and responsibilities under one coherent legal umbrella. The agency is currently going through the regulatory process; previously, CFIA rules and regulations were inconsistent across the food commodities, creating irritants for industry stakeholders and confusion for those who needed to comply with them. 

With that new mandate in hand, Archibald and Giliberti decided to take a very different approach, shifting the CFIA from being a prescriptive regulatory body –specifying minutiae such as the amount of acceptable standing moisture or even the size of exhaust fans in a food processing facility, for example – to one focused on outcomes. “For us, the responsibility for the proper handling of animals, protection of plants and ensuring a safe food supply rests in the hands of the people that produce those things,” Archibald says. “Our job is to create a regulatory framework that ensures a high level of safety. We shouldn’t be telling them exactly how to do it because innovation and technology will change all the time.”

Changing gears to focus on an outcomes-based strategy has meant retraining food inspectors and other frontline employees, transforming the way the CFIA analyzes challenges and opportunities and even improving the speed at which decisions are made. But it also involved engaging in an agency-wide comparative risk assessment to ensure that new rules and processes would adhere to strict safety standards. The CFIA developed sophisticated algorithms and methodologies to produce the data needed to make those comparisons and determine which practices might be extraneous – as well as those that needed strengthening. The CFIA will continue to use those insights to modernize its inspection regime and compliance requirements. “We’re trying to make sure we put the onus on the industry to have preventative control plans and systems in place, and require these plans across all commodities, which isn’t the case now,” Giliberti explains.

Perhaps most heartening for the two leaders has been CFIA staff and management’s embrace of their new vision. “It really seized the organization,” Archibald says. “We’ve been looking for ways to draw people together, but this particular exercise really galvanized the whole place.”

Archibald attributes part of that success to introducing two new cross-agency themes. The first is built around working better as a single operation with one vision, mission and budget. Archibald and Giliberti have made it their job to manage the CFIA accordingly, breaking down silos and promoting cooperation

and collaboration along the way. The duo has used a range of tools and practices, from improved internal communications to empowering employees to do their jobs with as much latitude as possible. Now, the executives focus most of their time on high-level planning and setting organizational priorities.

Archibald cites his team’s management of a recent avian influenza outbreak in British Columbia as one example of that hands-off approach in action. “We weren’t making decisions on the number of staff working in specific areas or mapping out locations,” Archibald recalls. “We let our experts do that, and they did a phenomenal job. You need a clear, consistent message that people can buy into and have trust and faith in your staff to do their job.”

The other key focus is driving electronic service delivery. Archibald concedes that CFIA has a long way to go before becoming fully digitized in the way it delivers services, but simply making the online push has helped to energize staff and management, many of whom have long hoped to modernize their organization. The CFIA’s new electronic service delivery platform – designed to help industry and other stakeholders carry out tasks as simple as applying for export permits or paying bills – will begin to roll out before the end of the year.

Whether motivating staff, managing recalls with provincial regulators or working with foreign counterparts to align Canada’s food inspection programs with those in other countries, Giliberti and Archibald both point to relationship and trust-building as a the most important aspect of their roles.

“We have to be consistent and true to what the science tells us and what our regulations tell us we need to do, but beyond that there’s lots of opportunity for dialogue, debate and negotiations to get the best results,” Archibald says. “Everyone in our space wants the same things. They want safe food, trade, to prevent bad things from coming into the country and for consumers to have confidence. For the most part, the agency has been highly successful in delivering that.”

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