Killer listeriosis: Canadian govt draws ‘final’ line in sand as union attacks

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Government of canada

Killer listeriosis: Canadian govt draws ‘final’ line in sand as union attacks
The Canadian government yesterday sought to draw a line under the deadly listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people in summer 2008, after publishing a final report into action taken since the incident.

But just prior to its release, one of Canada’s largest unions, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) lashed out at the government and claimed the “same flawed meat inspection system is still in place today, continuing to rely on the meat industry to police itself.

That means inspectors spend more time reviewing the industry’s own reports and test results than doing independent hands-on inspection,”​ the PSAC added.

The outbreak was caused by the presence of L.monocytogenes ​in ready-to-eat meat produced by Canada’s largest processor, Maple Leaf Foods, which eventually settled consumer lawsuits at a cost of CAD $27m (€19.98m).

In its wake, the Canadian government (which won criticism in some quarters for its response to the outbreak) asked Sheila Weatherill to lead an independent investigation into the outbreak and to make recommendations to strengthen the nation’s food safety system.

Weatherill’s report was released in July 2009, and the Canadian government said yesterday that it had since made significant investments in Canada’s food safety system after committing to implementing all of the her recommendations.

Government 'better equipped'

Minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq and Gerry Ritz, minister of agriculture, said, “At the federal level, the organisations responsible for food safety and public health are now better equipped to collaborate and coordinate government actions to prevent, detect and respond to potential food safety risks.”

They added: “We are also doing a better job at informing Canadians about the steps they can take to protect themselves from food-related illness. And we are developing a new food safety bill to simplify and modernise our legislation.”

Specifically, the Canadian government said its new food safety bill would address Weatherill’s recommendation that food safety legislation be simplified and modernised.

There was a greater awareness of food safety issues at all levels of government, the report said: “Work has been done to reduce the risk of listeriosis, and to improve governance among and within food safety partner organisations, and to improve their ability to prevents foodborne illness.”

Other work had also been done to detect pathogens such as listeria, boost surveillance of food safety hazards, and respond effectively when a food safety outbreak occurred, it added.

Listeria-specific improvements

Listeria-specific improvements include a 2011 review and revision of Health Canada’s Listeria policy, tests designed to identify the bacteria more quickly and increased monitoring via the National Enteric Surveillance Progam.

A Special Committee of Deputy Heads (SCDH), formed to oversee the implementation of Weatherill, had improved interaction and collaboration amongst food safety bodies, encouraging a culture of information sharing amongst partners, the report claimed.

Canadians were also at a lower risk of exposure to contaminated meat, it added, because the meat processing industry and regulators had worked to enhance environmental and food sample testing for Listeria.

The government said it had hired 170 full-time food safety inspectors and health assessment risk staff; investments had also been made in inspector tools, technology and training.

A wider range of potential food safety interventions was also flagged-up in the report, through an “accelerated approval process for new food additives and technologies of public health relevance”.

In addition, new lab procedures and detection methodologies had also been rolled-out nationwide to enable more rapid hazard detection, according to the government, while improvements had also been made to the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP).

This is the Canadian government’s blueprint for handling multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks, ensuring coordination amongst federal and provincial departments and agencies.

The nation’s Health Portfolio Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan also provided increased clarity on managing outbreak and emergency situations, the report stated.

Threat persists: PSAC

In sum, the Canadian government said that a CAD $75m (€55.5m) investment in September 2009 demonstrated its intention to implement Weatherill, as did an additional $26m investment in the 2010 budget to fund increased inspection capacity for meat and poultry processing facilities.

The 2011 budget also provided $100m over five years to invest in inspector training, tools, technology and science capacity.

But just prior to the report’s release PSAC union - which has an ongoing campaign using someone dressed as a squirrel (pictured) alerting shoppers to alleged meat safety shortfalls - slammed the government and lamented an ongoing “threat to food inspection in Canada”.

The PSAC noted that the Weatherill report recognised that, in the years leading up to the 2008 outbreak, the CFIA was not conducting mandatory safety audits at the Maple Leaf plant in question.

Regarding meat inspections, it added: “Some improvements have been made, but there are still too few inspectors covering too many facilities, making it impossible to verify that all of the meat processing facilities are following the rules that keep Canadians safe.”

The federal government was planning to cut between 5 and 10 per cent from every department and program, the PSAC said, where this included food safety and meat inspections.

A link to the publication, ‘Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians’, is available here​.

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