HEALTH: Listeria outbreak demands food safety upgrades: investigator

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July 21, 2009 12:36 PM

Canada needs to boost food safety measures in four key areas, according to a new report from the independent investigator who looked into last year's listeria outbreak at North York's Maple Leaf Foods that left at least 22 people dead.

"Some of our country's most vulnerable people lost their lives to this tragedy," said Sheila Weatherill, who released her review Tuesday, July 21.

"It is my hope that timely action will be taken to respond to this report in order to prevent a similar tragedy from ever occurring in this country again."

The government shoulders few responsibilities more important than ensuring Canada's food supply is safe, said Weatherill, who was appointed in January by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I learned that reviewing the outbreak in hindsight allowed me to see the sequence of events that led to the outbreak and to identify steps that could have been taken," said Weatherill, who interviewed more than 100 people, including victims' family members and business and government officials.

"I heard, repeatedly, that if people had only known or recognized then what they know now, these events may have evolved differently. Despite these best efforts and insights, 22 lives were lost."

Weatherill focused on four broad categories where improvements need to be made:

- More focus on food safety among senior officials in both public and private sectors;

- Better preparation for dealing with a serious food-borne illness, with more advanced planning for an emergency response;

- A greater sense of urgency if another food-borne emergency occurs;

- Clearer communications with the public about listeria and other food-borne illnesses, especially with at-risk Canadians and health professionals.

Weatherill made 57 recommendations, ranging from government rules for food safety and the government's capacity to manage national food-borne illness emergencies, to the safety culture of food processing companies and the need for food service providers to adopt food safety practices aimed at vulnerable populations.

Weatherill called for public safety to be at the heart of Canada's labyrinth of food safety protocols.

"Canada's food safety system is made up of a complex set of safety laws and regulations administered by a network of federal, provincial and local agencies. My report recommends that both regulators and business place safeguarding consumers at the centre of their consciousness and collective actions," she said.

Weatherill is recommending the minister of agriculture report back to the public in two years on how well her recommendations have been implemented.





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