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State of Canada's food-safety system still hotly debated.

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By Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News ServiceAugust 15, 2009


OTTAWA - When the Canadian Food Inspection Agency first announced a recall of foods containing pistachios in early spring, 25 products sold under three different brands were ensnared in the salmonella scare.

By the time the food-safety investigation was finally completed in June, the recall captured 70 products and 18 brands in Canada - all containing potentially contaminated pistachios from Terra Bella Inc. of California.

At the end of it all, the second largest pistachio company in the United States admitted it did not know salmonella contamination could occur on raw pistachios.

The striking revelation, made on the heels of a recall that was drawn-out because it took time for manufacturers to figure out whether they used the tainted ingredient, is hardly a boost of confidence for consumers who are still digesting a string of listeriosis post-mortems about how Canada's food system failed Canadians last August.

Twenty-two people, most of them elderly Canadians living in provincial long- term care facilities or hospitals, died after consuming deli meats contaminated with listeria produced at a government-inspected plant operated by a leading food company.

And on the eve of the one-year mark of the outbreak, the verdict is still out on how far we've come to improve the food-safety system in the intervening year.

``Oh, hell no,'' Rick Holley, University of Manitoba microbiologist and member of the academic advisory panel at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), says bluntly when asked if we're better off.

Mansell Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, is more measured, but hardly makes a definitive pronouncement about the shape we're in today.

``In some respects yes, in some respects no,'' says Griffiths, a professor in food science at the University of Guelph.

``Whether the listeriosis outbreak has led to an overall improvement in the awareness of food safety among industry is maybe arguable. Certainly it had everybody's attention when it happened, but outbreaks of this kind have happened before and we haven't really learned all the lessons that we should have from those outbreaks. Hopefully, this time will be a little bit different. ''

There's no doubt more rigorous tracking of listeria and sophisticated sanitation protocols are in place at Canada's federally regulated meat plants, where operators were shaken by the realization that steps taken at Maple Leaf Foods Inc., an industry leader in food safety, weren't as good as they needed to be to deal with the ubiquitous bacterium.

But the agency is still wrestling with a resource problem that sees one meat inspector responsible for an average of five facilities, while struggling with a new oversight system that favours auditing of company paperwork over time on the plant floor.

And the food safety system is much more than listeria and ready-to-eat meat plants, especially as the system becomes increasingly globalized and the ingredient chain in processed foods becomes more complicated.

The growing global ingredients market is expected to exceeded $34 billion US next year.

``I think the food system is way safer than it used to be, it's when things go wrong, it has a bigger impact then it used to, and that's a function of the new worldwide distribution system,'' says Dr. John Carsley, medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and member of the Listeriosis Investigation Expert Advisory Group.

``It can get very difficult to unravel.''

Already, consumers in Canada are bombarded with regular postings about fresh produce or nuts contaminated with salmonella or beef tainted with a deadly strain of E. coli.

Or it could be listeria in deli meats, campylobacter in chicken or Vibrio in seafood.

Public health officials believe cases of food-borne illnesses affect between 11 to 13 million Canadians every year and kill up to 500 people.

Carsley says the frequency of related recalls is actually ``very rare when you think of the food distribution system and how much food is eaten every day in Canada.''

But this globalized food system makes food-borne illnesses the largest class of emerging infectious diseases in Canada - a fact that appears to have caught the Public Health Agency of Canada off guard, according to Sheila Weatherill, who came to this conclusion after completing her independent investigation into last year's listeriosis outbreak.

There's no doubt most cases of food-borne illness can be prevented if consumers adopt safe food-handling practices. But some food-safety incidents fall squarely at the feet of industry - whether producers, processors or retailers, and the government charged with regulating and inspecting their food safety practices.

Industry leaders and government officials often say while improvements are always in the works to mitigate against ever-changing risks, Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world.

But many independent experts say this a stretch, even after instituting reforms limited to Canada's meat inspection program at federally regulated plants in response to the listeriosis outbreak.

``We're at the top half of mediocrity,'' says Holley, the University of Manitoba microbiologist, who pointed to Canada's position among 36 countries that provide food-borne illness information to an international food-borne illness surveillance database that includes the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and members of the European Union.

Holley's analysis last year showed 80 per cent of the countries had lower frequencies of E. coli illnesses than Canada. And about 30 per cent of the countries had frequencies of illnesses caused by salmonella and campylobacter that were lower.

``Canada's ranking could certainly not be anywhere near superior.''

This doesn't mean consumers have to worry about invisible bacteria lurking on all the foods on store shelves; it just means there are still many vulnerabilities in a food chain, beginning with everyday farm practices that are still wanton despite on-farm food safety protocols, says Holley.

``I feel reasonably good about the level of safety of food in Canada, but our vulnerabilities are substantial. We could have a food-borne illness outbreak tomorrow from produce that would affect people from one end of this country to another. We don't know how to address that appropriately at the moment. We're continuing to put manure on crops and feeding these organisms that cause food-borne illness in humans to animals that we then eat as food and produce that is fertilized by the waste materials from them. Look, that's just not too terribly bright in my mind.''

That's why ``surveillance and inspection is not going to cut it,'' adds Holley. ``How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.''

Despite important gains in the last decade with Canada's national surveillance system, Carsley admits more work needs to happen ``upstream.''

``In public health, we spend a lot of time running around trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, and for us, that's very frustrating. We would like to see, if you're going to invest, invest in those upstream interventions that are going to prevent the outbreak in the first place. That's really where you're going to get your bang for your buck.''

Brian Evans, CFIA's executive vice-president, agrees animal health and waste management are vital links in the food-safety chain. That's why the agency supports the shift to verifiable on-farm hazard control programs across all sectors.

But Evans says it's wrong to leave the impression that a proactive approach isn't already in place. It's just that last year's listeriosis outbreak sharpened the focus.

``I really believe what is fundamentally changed about food safety in Canada - and it is probably the best omen for the future - is the level of awareness that has played out at a number of levels of the past 12 months because, ultimately, I don't think you can affect the kind of culture change that I think most people would say is fundamental to the strongest possible food safety system without that level of awareness.''

However, in a recent study, Michael Armstrong, a quality management specialist at Brock University's faculty of business, found a culture change is still needed among some in the food industry.

He and student Cassandra Maddaloni combed through CFIA recall notices from 2004 through to the first half of this year, and found food recalls in Canada are increasing in complexity more than in frequency.

For example, there are about triple the rate of recalls per month this year compared to five years ago, but the spike is almost all due to followup messages issued after food companies and CFIA recall investigators unravel where the original contaminated food ended up.

``As a consumer, I can accept that something's occasionally going to go wrong, maybe it should go wrong less, but I can accept something will go wrong. Bacteria grows naturally, it will always be something to worry about, but I'm not as willing to accept the idea it should take a company months to determine if there was a problem,'' says Armstrong.

``If we're talking about potential health hazards, then we should have a 21st-century tracing system to go with our 21st-century supply chains, but it appears that there are a lot of businesses using 20th and 19th-century techniques when the supply chains were much shorter and simpler.''

If Armstrong has tough words for industry, Weatherill identified a ``void in leadership'' with the federal government, despite great talking points about the importance of food safety.

In December 2007, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a food safety action plan, he trumpeted pending legislation to replace outdated statutes in Canada's Food and Drugs Act and streamline Canada's food safety systems.

In the November 2008 throne speech, the Conservative government re-committed to ``keeping Canadians safe by putting in place new rules for food safety.''

But like two previous food-safety bills introduced by Liberal governments in 1999 and 2004, the latest Conservative bill died when the election was called last fall. It has yet to be reintroduced.

In the agriculture minister's office, where an advisory board is tasked with providing advice to the minister about CFIA, board members have not been appointed since 2002.

Then there's Canada's Blueprint for Food Safety, agreed to by the provincial and federal governments in 1994.

Discussions to update the country's food safety strategy began in 2003, but after years of intergovernmental inaction and wrangling, the 1994 blueprint still stands despite piecemeal additions.

Albert Chambers, executive director of the Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition, says industry fully expected the ``full strategy'' to be put forward last month during the annual meeting of agriculture ministers. He said senior bureaucrats signed off on the document last fall, but only partial elements were brought to the table at the ministers' meeting.

``We sense a bit of a stall. We've kind of plateaued in terms of our evolution as a food system, and we don't have a new vision or new strategy of where we want to be in the next five to 10 years, and we're not moving down that road in a collaborative kind of way,'' says Chambers.

In the meantime, watch for the latest recall to trickle out, just like the pistachio one.



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