Listeria outbreak rocketed Canada's food safety system to
top of mind in 2008
Source of Article: http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5jXkRCnSTsYh1tjYMQHN05u0c1x0Q
The deadly, nationwide outbreak of a previously anonymous bacterium has
pushed Listeria and food safety to the forefront of the public consciousness,
but experts warn that people are mistaken if they think avoiding Maple Leaf
cold cuts amounts to safe eating in 2009.
Canadians can expect food-borne illness outbreak levels to hold steady, or even increase, in the absence of wholesale
changes in how such events are tracked and managed, said Rick Holley, a food
science professor at the University
"The organisms that are going to be involved in causing food-borne
illnesses may change, but we have done (very little) to reduce the frequency
with which food-borne illness occurs in Canada," Holley said.
About 40 per cent of the food produced in Canada is manufactured under
federal regulations, while much of the remainder is subject to provincial
That's symptomatic of the multi-jurisdictional, sometimes unco-ordinated, nature of food safety in Canada, said
"If someone says to me, 'I'm not going to buy any more Maple Leaf
meat because it's very risky, they don't know what they're doing, I'm going
to buy locally,' Well, think again," he said.
"The local guy doesn't have to deal with the federal
If there was a government funded, central database for information on
food-borne illness, food scientists would be able to identify risks then
manage them, Holley said.
"If we carry on the way that we are right now, nothing, believe me,
is going to change in terms of the frequencies with which we see food-borne
illness in Canada,
except that it's going to increase as the population increases."
Brian Evans, executive vice-president and chief veterinary officer of the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said the federal agency is "fully
committed" to building such a database.
"At the end of the day... prevention is our best effort and our most
important priority," Evans said.
"At the same time we do realize the limits, that
no food-safety system will ever be perfect and will ever be able to eliminate
all risk from the food supply."
In August, Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) began a
recall of ready-to-eat meat products amid a nationwide Listeria outbreak.
Twenty people died in the outbreak, which was linked to a Maple Leaf facility
Listeria, which had been little known outside food safety circles, became
a household word and many were shocked to learn - via repeated messaging from
both food inspection officials and Maple Leaf CEO and president Michael
McCain - that it's everywhere.
It's in the soil, on produce, and likely on kitchen countertops in
millions of homes. Proper cleaning and cooking protocols must be followed to
reduce the threat of illness.
"Food safety became a very much front-of-mind issue in 2008, not
necessarily for the right reasons, but nevertheless, I think that's a
positive overall," Evans said. "I think it is important that people
have an understanding."
People are more familiar with food-borne outbreaks of E. coli or
salmonella because their incidence of causing illness in people is higher
than Listeria, Evans said. With that bacteria, only the subspecies Listeria monocytogenes causes human illness, and then only in the
elderly, immuno-compromised and pregnant women.
The public education efforts of McCain and Evans appear to be working, at
least for Maple Leaf.
Company data shows consumer confidence in early December was at 91 per
cent - up from 64 per cent in the immediate aftermath of the recall.
"(It) was certainly a game-changing year for food safety in this
country in many ways," McCain said.
In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an investigation
into the listeriosis outbreak. Both McCain and the
union representing CFIA inspectors would like to see that happen.
"We would certainly, very actively and assertively, encourage the
government to get on with the investigation," McCain said.
The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to questions about the investigation.
Maple Leaf has been scrubbing its image clean, implementing intense
sanitization and testing protocols, but some say the company was never the
The real risk lies in a persistent lack of resources that
"handcuff" CFIA employees, says the president of the Agriculture
Union at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
"They're making all the right moves in terms of shoring up the
program deficiencies, (but) they don't have the resources to actually make it
happen," said Bob Kingston.
"Now it's in the government's court. CFIA is trying to make the
appropriate changes, but they'll simply need people to do it.
"If the government won't come through then we could be in a worse
situation than we were before."
The CFIA may be facing challenges, but there have been no cuts to the
budget as a result of the economic downturn, Evans said.
From the time the Maple Leaf recall began making headlines,
waged a campaign against a government move toward greater industry
said inspectors drown in paperwork and can't keep a proper eye on the plant
"I think it allowed for what happened at Maple Leaf to go on as long
as it did without anybody knowing about it," he said.