Source of Article: http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2008/09/23/f-cfia.html
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency isn't sure how to conduct investigations after food has been recalled from the market, and there's no clear policy on when the agency needs to alert the public about tainted food.
The inside housing of a slicer machine at a Maple Leaf Foods plant is disassembled for sanitization in the wake of the listeriosis outbreak. (Maple Leaf Foods/Canadian Press)This indictment comes not from the agency's growing chorus of critics in the wake of an outbreak of listeriosis, which was connected to meat from a Maple Leaf food packing plant and had been linked to 18 deaths across the country by late September 2008. Nor did the indictment come as a result of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Sept. 3 announcement of an investigation into the crisis. Rather, the criticism is contained in an internal review of the CFIA's food emergency response program, done in 2005.
Amir Attaran, an editor at the Canadian Medical Association Journal who is calling for a formal government inquiry into the crisis, has read the Food Emergency Response Review and says its conclusions about the agency's recall system are troubling.
"It's fair to say that the government is endangering Canadians' lives three times a day: It's called breakfast, lunch and dinner," he told CBC News. "And unless we have a very serious look at food safety regulation to re-empower food inspectors … we're going to see this kind of thing happen again."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper set the terms of reference on Sept. 6, 2008, for an investigation into the listeriosis outbreak linked to processed meat products. The probe is to:
Unlike a formal inquiry under the Inquiries Act, an investigation does not involve a judge or have powers of subpoena requiring people to appear and give evidence. Investigators will not express any conclusion or recommendation about civil or criminal liability of individuals or organizations. The report is due before March 15, 2009.
The inspection agency's review was conducted from January to March 2005. CBC News obtained the review in 2007 under the federal Access to Information Act, as part of a joint investigation with the Toronto Star into food safety.
The CFIA's corporate planning, reporting and accountability branch examined three areas that, at the time, were deemed to "require immediate attention":
On the issue of food recalls, the CFIA's internal review concluded:
It's difficult to determine whether there have been changes to the CFIA's procedures as a result of the report, as the agency has refused to be interviewed on the subject by the CBC and the Toronto Star.
Even though the observations about the food emergency system were made in 2005, CFIA inspectors say problems still exist, according to Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the inspectors.
After circulating the internal
review to the union's members,
In another e-mail,
For their part, food safety
critics outside the Canadian Food Inspection Agency say the government has been
aware of the these problems for years and, what's worse, many of the same
concerns highlighted in the 2005 review were made in two previous internal
reviews dating back to when the agency was first established in 1997. In 2000,
After reading the latest report, Mike McBane, national director of the public health-care advocacy group Canadian Health Coalition, was incredulous. "It's shocking. No clear policy on a recall. Can you imagine? An emergency response program that has no policy on recalls?"
Rick Holley, a professor of food
microbiology and food safety in the department of food science at the
Though critics have long
complained about the weaknesses they perceive in
"Prior to April 1, they
[CFIA inspectors] actually toured their plants that they worked in to get a
general feel for conditions and they would notice things like excessive
humidity, or excessive temperature or condensation on ceilings where it wasn't
supposed to be," said
Although the CFIA has refused to be interviewed by the CBC and the Toronto Star, agency manager Richard Arsenault was quoted in August commenting on this new verification system: "All I can say is that with the new system that has been set up, there's always an adjustment phase."
A food inspector in
The plans call for the agency's net spending to decrease by approximately 12 per cent during those three years. An additional five per cent cutback during the same time period is aimed at staffing.
Critics say this is one of the reasons why the major political parties are promising to hire more inspectors.
But how much money is enough? And how many inspectors is enough? Those kinds of questions are difficult to answer, especially at a time when the federal government is squeezing departments and agencies to save money - or put another way in this internal note that CFIA president Carole Swan sent to her employees: "CFIA was one of 17 organizations that undertook a strategic review of its programs and put forward a series of proposals that identified where program spending could be reinvested more effectively."
For all the emphasis on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, it is important to realize that it is not the only player in the public health food safety system.
Other departments such as Health
Every year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducts about 3,000 safety investigations. About one-tenth of those investigations — roughly 360 a year — lead to recalls.
And yet that's what happened in the listeriosis outbreak.
It took more than three weeks for
Canadians to learn about the tainted meat, when people should have received the
warnings within days, as is the case in jurisdictions such as
Dr. Don Low, the medical director of the Ontario Public Health Laboratories and the chief of the department of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, told the CBC and Toronto Star that the three weeks it took to alert the public to the threat of listeriosis was inexcusable, and conceded that the provincial labs were ill-equipped to determine that the first two cases came from the same Toronto-area nursing home.
"By the time that was identified and the investigation was initiated, there's a significant time lag that to my mind shouldn't have happened," he said.
Dr. Low was recruited in wake of
the SARS outbreak to help bring
This is one of the reasons why critics are calling for an inquiry on the scale of those held in the wake of tainted blood scandal, the water crisis in Walkerton, Ont., and SARS. So far, Harper has only promised an investigation.
"An inquiry is different
from an investigation," explained the Canadian Medical Association
Journal's Attaran, who is also a law professor at the
Attaran adds that an inquiry is open to the public, whereas an investigation is not. "An inquiry allows witnesses to be placed under subpoena; that is, if someone doesn't want to testify, you can order them to testify. And you can order them to bring documents. Well, an investigation such as Harper has asked for doesn't have the power of subpoena. It can't order anybody to attend. It can't order anybody to give evidence."
Whether the listeriosis outbreak leads to an inquiry and changes to the Canadian food inspection system is still an open question. Meanwhile, as the issue makes headlines during the campaign for the Oct. 14 federal election, the parties continue to position themselves to tackle the issue of food safety after the ballots are cast.
Contributors: Susanne Reber, Laurie Graham
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