We should have spoken up on Listeria: food agency

Source of Article: http://www.thespec.com/News/BreakingNews/article/468964

November 19, 2008


Torstar News Service
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency could have done a far better job communicating with the public during this summer's listeria outbreak, a top official at the federal agency concedes.

"There's been a lot of hard questions asked ... in terms of how we can get information to the public in as timely a way as possible," said Dr. Brian Evans, CFIA executive vice-president and chief veterinary officer of Canada. "I accept the criticism that there is a need for us to reflect and to do a much better job of informing (Canadians)."

Evans and other CFIA officials were largely invisible during the tainted meat tragedy that left at least 20 people dead and made hundreds perhaps thousands more ill.

In the end, the public face of the crisis turned out not to be public health officials at any level of government. That responsibility was left to Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, who sat before reporters several times throughout the outbreak to answer questions millions of Canadians were asking as the death toll increased.

"I think we need to work with the media and others to have them understand the context of the programming we're doing, what is the science that we're bringing to the work that we do, and I think we have to be engaging with the public ... to make sure we're responsive in the appropriate way," Evans said.

The invisibility of Evans and other CFIA officials during the outbreak was in stark contrast to the very public approach of officials during the SARS outbreak in Ontario when the late Dr. Sheela Basrur and her colleagues sat before reporters each day to update the government's concerns, actions and next steps.

During the summer's meat outbreak, repeated requests for media interviews with the CFIA were delayed and often denied outright.

The typical explanation from CFIA communications staff was that approvals to speak were not forthcoming from senior government officials, especially during an election campaign when the outbreak was unfolding.

Evans said the political process should have no impact on the CFIA's responsibility to address Canadians on important public health matters.

"I'm not a politician. From our perspective, food safety is not a political issue ... Where we have information that will be helpful to Canadians, we need to make sure that whatever the approval processes are, it's important that we're able to (speak)."

One CFIA initiative that will help in that regard is a newly formed advisory panel comprised of four prominent food safety experts. The panel will consult with the CFIA on best practices and possible changes to existing protocols.

One of the first tasks for the new panel will be advising the CFIA on a set of proposed changes to listeria testing in food plants, the details of which were first reported two weeks ago by the Star and the CBC.

The proposed changes include mandatory listeria testing on plant surfaces such as countertops, floors, ceilings and drains, immediate quarantine and testing of food after two subsequent positive findings, and mandatory testing of actual food by CFIA inspectors three times a year.

The proposed changes include a requirement that company officials proactively warn CFIA inspectors when they encounter positive tests a protocol that the Star and the CBC found had stopped being practised shortly before this summer's outbreak.

"While food safety should be the responsibility of individual companies, the regulatory agencies have the responsibility to verify that the food safety of the products produced is assured," said Harshavardhan Thippareddi, a listeria expert and associate professor of food science at the University of Nebraska.

"Thus, the regulatory agency can, and I believe should, require companies to share any and all data that pertains to any safety issue, in this case listeria testing results."


 

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