Lax co-ordination delayed action on listeria: reports

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3 days ago

OTTAWA Poor co-ordination among governments and agencies over food safety is putting Canadians at risk.

That's the unwritten conclusion from a series of reports into last summer's deadly listeriosis crisis that claimed at least 20 lives. Reports released Friday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada describe a cumbersome system that is short on meat-hygiene expertise, needs clarity on who identifies root-cause problems, and has trouble tracking problematic food products.

Despite having an emergency response protocol, the CFIA never activated an emergency operations centre as laid out in the plan, a report by the agency reveals.

A separate CFIA report says the crisis has prompted a variety of tougher new inspection policies. It says the government cancelled one of its inspection requirements in 2005 - and that the health crisis prompted it to reinstate and toughen that requirement.

Environmental inspections at meat plants were dropped in 2005, following a policy change by the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA eliminated the requirement for environmental testing at plants, but increased the frequency of testing for final products to once a month.

"Now, in hindsight, we do recognize that environmental testing is a critical component of food safety," Dr. Brian Evans, executive vice-president of the CFIA, told The Canadian Press.

Those once-cancelled tests are now conducted six times a year.

In broader terms, "our overall collective assessment was there were areas for improvement in terms of early engagement of all the partners," Evans said in an interview.

"That's an issue of co-ordination."

Still, the agency concludes: "In general, the CFIA exercised its inspection and other statutory powers during the recall process."

Union leader Bob Kingston, head of the agriculture section of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said the study makes some useful recommendations, "but they don't have people to do it."

"This report is blind to the inspector shortage that is making it impossible for CFIA to properly do its job of safeguarding the food Canadians eat."

The federal studies were posted Friday afternoon while the House of Commons was adjourned - a traditional dumping ground for news the government wants to bury.

The reports surfaced several hours after Ontario held a news conference with its own post-mortem of the deadly listeriosis outbreak linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

Ontario's acting medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, noted that almost a month elapsed between the first listeriosis death last summer and a widespread recall of suspect Maple Leaf deli meats.

"If I had known that these products had gone out to the general public, I would have recommended a wider recall sooner," Williams said.

All the reports noted that tracing the source of a food-borne pathogen can be painstaking and time-consuming detective work. That makes co-ordination amongst agencies and departments, and across levels of government, vitally important.

The CFIA report first congratulates federal agencies on their "timely and appropriate exchange of information."

But under the heading "Areas for Improvement," the report states that timely determination of an outbreak and timely notification of the public require "additional clarity at provincial and federal levels ... as to protocols and leadership roles."

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett accused the Conservative government of exercising damage control ahead of public health.

"It would appear that their lack of communications with the Ontario Ministry of Health stemmed from their desire to limit political damage, rather than putting the lives of Canadians first," Bennett said in a release.

The CFIA outlined dozens of other policy changes aimed at more testing and greater industry awareness of health risks.

The government says Maple Leaf conducted 108 inspections of its own facility over the course of 2008, and that listeria began showing up in May.

Maple Leaf was not required to notify the government - and did not do so until after the outbreak occurred in August.

"The CFIA has a critical role and Maple Leaf provided detailed reports of listeria findings for their inspection on an ongoing basis throughout 2008," said Linda Smith, a spokeswoman for the company.

The CFIA report also stresses the need "to clearly identify (to the public) . . . that it is the firm's responsibility to develop and implement a recall plan."

In Toronto, Ontario's medical officer told a news conference that tracing food-borne pathogens "isn't CSI Miami."

"Symptoms don't develop within seconds, and lab test results do not become available over a two-minute commercial break," said Williams. "In the real world, symptoms take time to develop - days or even weeks."

In his recommendations, Williams said Ottawa should consider expanding regional capacity to do molecular "fingerprinting" of bacterial strains, instead of sending samples only to federal laboratories in Winnipeg and Ottawa for testing.

As well, the Ontario Public Health Laboratory's capacity to test for bacterial strains should be beefed up.

One thing noticeably absent from all the reports is any stated role for Agriculture Canada.

Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was the lead government spokesman during the crisis, and came under fire for making a tasteless joke about "death by a thousand cold cuts" during one internal conference call.

Bennett said she can't understand why Ritz was given the role of communicating to concerned Canadians.

"It seems that there was interference, political interference, in what was clearly a public health outbreak that should have been managed by public health officials and done in a clear communication with the people of Canada," the Liberal MP said in Toronto.



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