CFIA flubs food failure followup

Canada’s auditor general has identified weaknesses in how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency manages recalls of contaminated foods and its followups with processors to prevent further incidents.

“While illnesses were contained in the recalls we examined, I am not confident that the system will always yield similar results,” Auditor General Michael Ferguson said in his fall report to Parliament. Even with the experience of two massive food safety incidents and numerous smaller ones, he said the agency has too many shortcomings in its food safety management system.

Ferguson said the agency does a good job of reacting to food safety issues and removing tainted product from the marketplace, “the weaknesses we found in decision-making and followup stand in the way of the continuous improvement of a system intended to deal with food safety incidents in Canada.”

He also said CFIA inadequately verifies “that inspectors were conducting investigations and recalls according to its policies. We found that the CFIA did not conduct all of the quality assessments it had planned in 2010, 2011 and 2012.”

Ferguson’s findings bring added attention to CFIA as it works its way through a massive rejigging and operational streamlining to fulfil the terms of C52, the Safe Food for Canadians Act, passed earlier this year by Parliament. Food processors have expressed frustration with some of the consultations the agency is conducting.

Last year’s massive recall of beef products from XL Foods in Alberta and the deadly listeria outbreak in 2008 highlighted CFIA’s problems in collecting data from processors which are vital to ensuring all contaminated product is removed from the market. Ferguson said stronger measures are needed to make clear what information processors must provide. “For registered establishments, inspectors should regularly validate that the information maintained by the establishment is complete and accessible.”

The CFIA doesn’t have a clear process for ensuring all recalled product is properly disposed of rather than finding its way back into the food system, Ferguson noted.

CFIA also falls short of following up to verify that recalling firms had corrected the underlying cause of the recall on a timely basis.

Meat processors should be required to correct problems within 60 days, Ferguson said. At the same time, CFIA needs to continue monitoring companies involved in a recall to make sure the corrective actions are fully completed.

CFIA’s implementation of emergency response plans to deal with major recalls has created confusion among staff at headquarters and in the regions, the report said. “Important food safety decisions were not communicated to key stakeholders, including many food safety experts within the agency,” Ferguson said.

Both the food industry and CFIA staff are not familiar with a draft plan for managing food safety incidents.

Ferguson was also critical of reviews conducted by the agency in the aftermath of a major recall. Three reviews conducted during 2012 didn’t meet the CFIA’s own requirements for completeness. “These reviews should include the perspectives of key stakeholders and should examine the strengths and weaknesses of the investigation, the recall process and the emergency management process.”

He said the CFIA needs to do a better job of keeping the paperwork up to date during a food safety investigation and recall, and it must ensure it’s getting the information it needs to monitor the progress. “Incomplete record-keeping limited the agency’s ability to track investigation… We found many examples of incomplete documentation.”

As well, a lack of information “limits the agency’s ability to develop a national picture of how well it is delivering its recall activities and areas for improvement,” Ferguson said.

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