Canadian food safety system slammed

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Food

The Canadian food safety system is a fragmented patchwork of regional structures that has failed to keep pace with advances in knowledge, according to research published this week.

Problems in the country’s food safety system are “deeply rooted”,​ while the Government has been slow to learn a number of lessons, said Richard Holley in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

“Safety must be built into foods not inspected into them”,​ said the researcher as he called for “smarter inspection not more inspection”.

Surveillance of food-borne illnesses

The study points out that there is no national surveillance programme for the estimated 11 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually in the country. The paper said there is a generic under-reporting of cases to the two agencies involved - whose handling of the data was characterised as “inconsistent”.

The surveillance systems ignore the large sporadic illness components, which is more useful in detecting the major sources of illness and developing policies to manage them, said Holley.

The country’s food safety system, which is operated by three levels of government, needs to be more proactive and manage prioritised risk. Methods to collect information on food vehicles and agents responsible for food outbreaks should be introduced to match those in Europe, the United States and Australia.

The Government must promote co-operation and information sharing on surveillance that go beyond “inter-agency memoranda of understanding”​ and be willing to invest in a risk-based programme, said the research.

Food inspection

The study highlights the difference in standards between national, provincial and municipal governments as a cause for concern. The national body, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), is responsible for overseeing the registering of food processing facilities whose goods are traded between provinces, imported or exported. These standards are as rigorous as international trading partners, said Holley.

Within provinces, problems can arise because “the same products require only regional approval and must comply with a second tier of less stringent regulations”​ administered by regional authorities, said the study. Food service organisations operate within a third tier, with each province and department having their own staff and sometimes practices.

Quality versus quantity

Canada’s size, regional differences in population densities and varying levels of infrastructure “complicate”​ the country’s ability to implements a uniform food safety programme. The paper raises the issue that food safety inspection is not just about the number of visits carried out but about their quality.

“The rigor of food inspection and surveillance for food –borne illness are linked,” ​said the study. “In the absence of an inspection based on risk (which is key to the management of risk), inspection will continue to focus on requirements for compliance with label formats, fill weights and terminology for ingredients, all of which can be easily measured against guidelines”.

While this type of work has its role it “contributes little to overall safety”,​ added Holley. “Smart inspection with proactive detection of the deficiencies in the safety is more elusive because it requires insightful analysis of system operations.”

The responsibility for the manufacturing of safe foods rests with the industry, while smart inspection to ensure rule compliance is highly complementary.

“Smarter inspection will improve food safety in Canada​ by Richard A Holley PhD

CMAJ 2010.DOI:10.1503.cmaj.090517

Related topics: R&D

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