This article is updated to March 30, 2020.

Much has changed for Canadians in the past few weeks due to COVID-19. One thing that has not changed is that people still need to buy and consume food, as evidenced by the recent panic buying. In maintaining food safety programs, food businesses face an increasingly complex regulatory landscape from the measures enacted by federal, provincial and municipal governments to combat COVID-19.

This article will summarize some of the measures that have been implemented by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at the federal level, and in Ontario, Québec and British Columbia at the provincial level. Businesses should also be aware of municipal requirements, such as the City of Vancouver’s recent orders made under its emergency powers.

CFIA – Response to COVID-19

So far, the CFIA’s response to COVID-19 has been operational, rather than imposing more stringent food safety measures on industry. Food businesses still must comply with the Safe Food for Canadians Act, S.C. 2012, c. 24 and the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations, S.O.R./2018-108. The CFIA has taken the position that “[t]here is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of COVID-19”, but it will continue to monitor the situation.1

However, food businesses will need to comply with heightened hygiene and sanitary measures from the provinces and municipalities in which they operate, as discussed below. Facilities should enhance their cleaning and sanitation efforts to control any risks that might be associated with workers who are ill, regardless of the type of virus or bacteria. This is in addition to regular cleaning and sanitation under the business' preventive control plan.2 Employers should develop policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. These should be clearly communicated to employees, and employees must confirm that they have understood.3 Employers must also follow the advice of public health authorities to allow employees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate.

Food businesses will also need to implement social distancing measures. For example, in British Columbia, the Provincial Health Officer made a number of directions to manufacturers, which includes ensuring that no more than 50 persons are in the same space and that employees maintain two metres apart from each other, in addition to other measures to ensure prevent contagion of COVID-19.4 

COVID-19 is affecting the CFIA’s operations. The CFIA has temporarily suspended low-risk food inspections and other investigations. Instead, the CFIA will focus its operations on areas of higher risk and towards activities that are critical to the safety of food, as well as animal and plant health. The CFIA will prioritize:

  • food safety investigations and recalls;
  • animal disease investigations;
  • inspection services;
  • export certification;
  • import inspection services;
  • emergency management; and
  • laboratory diagnostics in support of the above.

Also, the CFIA has clarified on its website that businesses should not require CFIA inspectors and officials to sign various documents, such as Visitor Request Forms and COVID-19 Screening Forms, before entering facilities.5 Under the various legislation enforced by the CFIA, inspectors and officials have broad powers to enter any place in which they have reasonable grounds to believe that an activity regulated by CFIA legislation is conducted, for the purpose of verifying compliance, preventing non-compliance, or both.

The CFIA has provided updated guidance to livestock producers, recommending to follow normal biosecurity measures as always, particularly if producers have COVID-19 symptoms or are self-isolating due to contact with a COVID-19 case. In addition to avoiding contact with animals, this includes excluding visitors or workers who:

  • have travelled abroad in the last 14 days;
  • are ill, especially with symptoms of COVID-19; and
  • have been in contact with a confirmed or suspected case in the last 14 days.6

Also, there are currently no specific requirements in place in Canada restricting animal importation related to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, until the CFIA knows more, it has stated that importers, rescue organizations, and adoptive families should postpone importing any animals as much as possible.7

Ontario and Québec – Mandatory closures of non-essential or non-priority workplaces

On March 23, 2020, both the Ontario and Québec provincial governments announced they would order the mandatory closure or minimization of all non-essential workplaces in their respective provinces.

The Ontario order took effect on March 24, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. The closure will be in effect for 14 days with the possibility of being extended as the situation evolves. The Government of Ontario released a list of essential workplaces that can remain open.8 This includes a number of food-related businesses identified as “essential” workplaces, including:

  • businesses engaged in the retail and wholesale sale of food, pet food and supplies, and household consumer products necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and essential operations of residences and businesses, including grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, markets and other similar retailers;
  • businesses that provide essential items for the health and welfare of animals, including feed, animal food, pet food and animal supplies, including bedding;
  • restaurants and other food facilities that prepare and serve food, but only for delivery or takeaway, together with food delivery services;
  • businesses that farm, harvest, process, manufacture, produce or distribute food, including beverages, crops, animal products and by-products, aquaculture, hunting and fishing;
  • businesses that support the food supply chain, including assembly yards, livestock auctions, food distribution hubs, feed mills, farm equipment suppliers, feed suppliers, food terminals and warehouses, animal slaughter plants and grain elevators; and
  • businesses that support the safety of food, including animal and plant health, and animal welfare.

The order in Québec is effective as of March 25, 2020, at 12:01 a.m. until April 13, 2020. Québec has identified food businesses among the priority services and activities that may remain open, subject to current and future health directives.9 As of March 24, 2020, the following are “priority” food-related activities and services:

  • food inspection and safety;
  • food production, such as farming enterprises, food processing, beverages, slaughterhouses, market garden production;
  • the production of inputs necessary for priority sectors;
  • grocery stores and other food stores;
  • procurement and distribution of foodstuffs, grocery stores and convenience stores; and
  • pet food and supplies stores.

Essential or priority food businesses in Ontario and Québec that remain open will still need to follow social distancing practices, and implement increased hygiene and sanitary measures.

British Columbia – General measures

As of March 24, 2020, unlike Ontario and Québec, British Columbia has not implemented the same type of broad-based closure of non-essential or non-priority businesses. Instead, the British Columbia government has focused is mandatory closure orders on businesses that cannot meet the requirements of social distancing.

However, on March 26, 2020, British Columbia released a list of essential businesses that should remain and are encouraged to remain open. They still must follow the orders and guidance provided by the Provincial Health Officer. The list includes a wide range of food and agricultural service providers.10

British Columbia has prohibited mass gatherings in excess of 50 people at any place. The wording of the order against gatherings is broad, and there are ongoing efforts to clarify the scope of the order and its impacts on businesses.

The Provincial Health Officer has recently released further guidance to retail food and grocery stores operating during COVID-19.11 The Provincial Health Officer has clarified that although the mass gatherings order does not directly apply to the retail food and grocery industry, the spirit of the order should be followed. This means that for large grocery stores where it is feasible to have more than 50 people present at one time, it is permissible to do so provided that appropriate physical distancing can be maintained. The Provincial Health Officer has also stated that “a good rule of thumb when calculating a maximum number of persons in a retail or grocery store at any one time is one person per two meters squared or four square meters of retail floor space.”

Food premises will still need to maintain food safety procedures according to the Food Safety Act, S.B.C. 2002, c. 28, and the Food Premises Regulation, B.C. Reg. 210/99. However, the Provincial Health Officer has added further guidance in light of COVID-19, which includes heightened hygiene and sanitary measures for employees and ways to allow customers maintain social distancing.

Restaurant operators should also be aware of municipal level orders. For example, there are fines of up to $50,000 or tickets of $1,000 for contravening a written order of the City of Vancouver made under By-law No. 12661, “A By-law to declare a State of Emergency in Vancouver” (Emergency By-Law). Pursuant to the Emergency By-Law, the City of Vancouver ordered that restaurants must prohibit customers from eating in the premises and cannot have more than ten people in the premises at one time. Contravening this order will result in a fine or a ticket.

We will be updating this article as more information becomes available. If your food business has any questions about the changing regulatory landscape arising from COVID-19, please contact Morgan Camley or Roark Lewis.

  1. Canada, CFIA, “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): CFIA information for industry.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. British Columbia, Provincial Health Officer, “Guidance to B.C. manufacturers during COVID-19.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Canada, CFIA, “Latest CFIA information for consumers on food and animal health – COVID-19.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ontario, Officer of the Premier, “List of Essential Workplaces” (March 23, 2020).
  9. Québec, “Minimization of non-priority services and activities.”
  10. British Columbia, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, “Province takes unprecedented steps to support COVID-19 response” (March 26, 2020).
  11. British Columbia, Provincial Health Officer, “Guidance to retail food and grocery stores operating during COVID-19.