Ottawa should move fast on food-safety report

 Source of Article:


The GazetteJuly 23, 2009


Sheila Weatherill, brought in from the private sector to study last August's deadly listeriosis outbreak, has produced an admirable report on the supervision of Canada's food-preparation industry. Her 57 recommendations demand urgent attention.

When she was CEO of Edmonton's much-admired Capital Health Authority, Weatherill was known for candid efficiency. Sure enough, she has bluntly cited a "void of leadership" from Ottawa during the outbreak, and a longer-term pre-crisis "vacuum in senior leadership" at the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A perfect food-inspection system is impossible. But the "confusion and weak decision-making" that led to 22 deaths and 57 serious illnesses should not have happened.

It takes a disaster, sometimes, to remind everyone that preventive maintenance, though costly, is vital - in food plants, in highway overpasses, in concrete-clad buildings, and elsewhere.

In clear and unbureaucratic language, Weatherill calls in her report ( for "swift and significant action in ... the culture of food processing companies, the design of food processing equipment, the rules and requirements for food safety set out by the federal government, as well as governments' capacity to manage national food emergencies."

She found fault, in varying degrees, with every company, agency and department involved in the origin and management of the crisis. Weatherill was wary of civil-service union claims that Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors are overworked, but she did not utterly discount the claim; instead she called on Ottawa to bring in a third-party assessor to study that question.

Inevitably, many of the Weatherill panel's recommendations are bureaucratic in nature ("The Office of Food Safety and Recall should report directly to the office of the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.") This sort of thing is inevitable when different agencies and levels of government must interact. But Canadians have become reasonably adept at rounding off the rough edges of shared-jurisdiction management; the same should be possible in this case.

Ultimately, however, a more effective food-safety regime, in prevention and in quick reaction to crises, depends on the response to Weatherill's meta-recommendation, that Ottawa " should clearly and emphatically commit to the safety of food as one of its top priorities."

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, noting that some of the proposed actions have been taken already, promised to give the others careful attention. He will have to, because after this terrible warning, Canadians will demand higher standards.



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