Policy change delayed alarm signal over listeria, inspectors say

Last Updated: Monday, October 6, 2008 | 6:23 AM ET

By David McKie, CBC News

Source of Article: http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2008/10/05/listeria-inspections.html

Months before the tainted meat from the Maple Leaf Plant in the Toronto area began claiming lives, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted a new policy that meat inspectors now say removed clear language that required companies to report any positive listeria tests directly to inspectors.

CFIA inspectors have told the CBC and the Toronto Star that on April 1, they essentially became auditors of the companies' paperwork, which is part of the compliance verification system. CVS details the measures the country's 198 meat processing plants must adopt to ensure they're operating safely.

"Prior to April 1, [any positive listeria tests] would have had to have been, not only brought to the inspector's attention, but the inspector would have been involved in overseeing the cleanup," said Bob Kingston, head of the union representing CFIA inspectors.

"The CFIA would have been doing their own testing to validate the success of the cleanup. But after April 1, with the changes they brought in, none of that happened. They weren't required to bring their cleanup activities to the inspector's attention, [and] they wouldn't have been required to bring a failed cleanup attempt to the inspector's attention, or repeated positives."

Inspectors said had the alarm bells been sounded earlier, lives could have been saved.

"Bells and whistles would have been sounding if [Maple Leaf officials] had to report positive test findings to an inspector," said one Toronto area CFIA inspector who spoke to the CBC and the Star on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"We might not have had anybody dead [if company officials were still obligated to report positive listeria findings]. It's terrible. My dad eats this stuff all the time. I eat it," the inspector said.

Maple Leaf says it made repeated attempts to find source

At a news conference to announce the food recall in August 2008, Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain told reporters that the company made repeated attempts to find the source of the contamination.

"Inside a food facility with very aggressive environmental management programs it's not uncommon to get a positive result," he said.

Under the new policy, inspectors only check records for listeria tests twice a month rather than being alerted immediately.

Maple Leaf makes all of its paperwork and testing available to CFIA inspectors, but doesn't actively alert inspectors when positive tests are discovered, company spokeswoman Linda Smith confirmed in an interview last week:

"The protocol Maple Leaf had in place was if they found a positive, they would sanitize the area and then you'd need to find three negatives in a row to leave that area alone. In [the north Toronto Maple Leaf plant from which the outbreak was traced], there were occasional positives. They would sanitize and test three subsequent times and in all of those cases, they did not find another positive in that area."

Union president Bob Kingston said inspectors used to follow Chapter 5 of the agency's Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedure, which is still on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website:

"Establishments testing positive for listeria species or Listeria monocytogenes in the environment are required to submit an action plan to the inspector in charge, indicating all corrective measures which will be implemented to eliminate listeria in the RTE (ready-to-eat) environment. The area program specialist may be contacted for advice on the acceptability of the action plan."

Kingston said the "requirement to submit an action plan" is absent from their new instruction manual, the Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedure.

The procedures in the new manual detail the steps companies must take to ensure safety. But inspectors say it makes it too difficult for them to do their jobs properly.

Inspector complains of being overloaded with paperwork

"Before, you had authority, you were like a cop. We were the meat police. Now, you're just looking at the paperwork," the Toronto-area inspector said.

Tom Graham, national inspection manager for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, rejects the claim that inspectors spend too much time reviewing company paperwork rather than performing physical inspections. He insists that CVS increases accountability because it forces inspectors to examine a number of company records that could raise red flags about contamination.

"Our inspectors are looking at 14 different tasks that are all related to ensuring that there's no pathogens in products. Whether it's ensuring that the equipment is clean then it would lead them to looking at those records as well," Graham said.

The union said inspectors it has canvassed in the last few weeks disagree, complaining that they're so flooded with paperwork that they have little time to review the companies' listeria tests.

The CBC and Toronto Star have also learned that in a closed-door meeting last month, the union demanded that the food inspection agency make it mandatory for companies to report listeria tests to inspectors right away.

"The CFIA needs to get grassroots feedback about what works and what doesn't work, said a veteran inspector from the Vancouver area. "CVS isn't working. Let's go back to basics, get the inspector back in the plant, spending more time there on the ground.

"I think that change would have prevented a preventable situation like the listeria problem, which has alarmed me," the inspector said. "It's a travesty for the department."

Policy now undergoing revision

The agency's national inspection director, Tom Graham, concedes that the CFIA may change the policy to make it mandatory for companies to report positive test results to inspectors immediately.

"The policy right now is going through a revision. I can't sit here and tell you that that revision is going to be done tomorrow or next week."

Graham said that, in the meantime, inspectors are conducting "blitzes" across the country to ensure that no tainted meat is leaving processing plants.

"All I can do is assure the Canadian public that we're making sure that all results are being looked at by the inspection staff," Graham said.



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