06/07/2012 03:58 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Tainted food could draw fines of $5M or more under new federal legislation

OTTAWA - Anyone who meddles with Canada's food supply will soon get more than a slap on the wrist, the Conservative government said Thursday as it introduced new measures to streamline the food inspection system and impose towering fines against violators.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the proposed changes would allow better control of imports and exports and increase maximum fines to more than $5 million, significantly higher than the present top level of $250,000.

"Our government is committed to making food as safe as possible for Canadian families," Ritz said in a statement.

The current system has different acts covering fish, meat and other farm products, as well as foods covered by the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. The new bill would consolidate inspection and enforcement provisions, reduce overlap and better enable producers to comply, Ritz said.

The legislation also contains new penalties for those who recklessly endanger lives through tampering, deceptive practices or hoaxes.

Other provisions would allow certification of any food commodity for export, which Ritz said would increase global confidence in Canadian food.

The bill will also strengthen controls over imported food commodities, introduce powers to register or license regulated parties and prohibit the importation of unsafe foods.

The Opposition was skeptical, especially when it comes to charges.

"The reality today is that the vast majority of charges are never laid," said NDP MP Malcolm Allen.

"They’re simply – they’re left in abeyance, they go into a file, they disappear ... so if you’re not going to charge people and not going to follow through, you can charge $5 billion, it just wouldn't make a difference."

Union leaders, meanwhile, have been raising concerns for some time that Canada's food safety was at risk because of millions being slashed from inspection budgets. The union representing food inspectors says at least 100 inspectors are liable to lose their jobs.

Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston called the bill a good first step, but said it needs resources behind it.

"To make sure that all food safety systems are working properly to ensure the lowest risk to Canadians from the food we eat, the CFIA needs to double the inspection force," Kingston said.

The Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition welcomed the announcement of the bill.

The coalition is an umbrella group representing primary producers, transport and marketing groups, producer councils and provincial and national associations tied to food.

"The proposals . . . meet many of the food safety objectives of both industry and government," Albert Chambers, executive director of the coalition, said in a news release.

"They complete initiatives identified by previous governments; and they will position Canada’s food safety regime well in the rapidly changing global regulatory environment."