Response to major food safety incidents in Canada found wanting

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Originally written for Food Chemical News

A flood of reports on the lessons learned from the 2008 listeria moncytogenes outbreak in Canada that killed 20 and sickened more than 50 recommends much greater co-operation and coordination among the federal, provincial and municipal governments in responding to serious food borne illnesses.

Distributed in a package on April 17 were reports from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. At the same time, Dr. David McKeown, medical officer of health for the City of Toronto, released his version of events.

None of them really explain why it took from mid to late July when Toronto health officials realized there was a major gastrointentis outbreak in some of the city’s nursing homes to mid August for CFIA to ask Maple Leaf Foods to begin recalling products from its deli meat plant in Toronto.

Nor was it clear what would become of all the recommendations in the reports, which were released without a news conference or any comment from federal cabinet ministers. There are two ongoing inquiries into the outbreak. Sheila Weatherill was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in February and will report her findings to the government in July. The House of Commons subcommittee on food safety began public hearings on the matter April 20. It will report to Parliament in June.

None of the reports blame Maple Leaf for the outbreak saying it was following the federal rules although the Ontario officials suggest its plant was not in tip top condition at the time of the outbreak.

CFIA’s recommendations included better criteria for identifying and managing a food safety incident, improved co-ordination and co-operation with provincial and municipal health officials, clear communications on recalled products and more attention to analyzing outbreaks of illness and food safety issues. Some of its proposals for expanded environmental testing in plants and rerporting all Listeria incidents to the Agency were included in its revamped Listeria testing policy for ready to eat meats released in early March.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said the Listeria outbreak demonstrates a need to put public health officials in charge of handling disease situations through an Outbreak Coordinating Committee. Food laboratories must upgrade their capacity “to conduct a wider range of tests, monitor strains of bacteria and other organisms that pose a threat to public health, and educate public health units about sampling techniques.” Governments also need to track illness trends so they spot diseases faster. There also has to be better communications among the different levels of government.

The Toronto report criticized CFIA for an overly cautious policy of connecting a food borne illness to a particular source before warning the public. “The threshold for deciding to recall a food product or notify the public is an important policy issue which has been a source of ongoing discussions (among governments).” Health officials don’t wait for a precise cause and effect relationship before warning the public about potential health risks and the same policy should apply to unsafe foods.

21 April 2009 — Return to cover.