Health Canada, the Public Health Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have all been cited for contributing to a breakdown in the food inspection system during last summer’s deadly listeria outbreak.
To prevent a repeat of it, special investigator Sheila Weatherill proposed 57 recommendations to improve food safety. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said they would form a major part of the government’s overhaul of food safety rules and policies.
After six months of probing the incident that killed 22 and seriously sickened more than 50, Weatherill, a former heath-care executive, didn’t blame anyone for the incident. No individual element on its own was enough to have caused the outbreak. What happened was an overall failure of the food inspection system.
Maple Leaf Foods failed to appreciate the seriousness of listeria contamination in its Toronto deli meat plant while federal and provincial government agencies were unclear on their responsibilities and didn’t inform consumers about the risk posed to seniors and pregnant women, she says.
Weatherill said governments and industry must take “swift and appropriate steps to make sure a tragedy such as this doesn’t happen again.”
Opposition parties didn’t quarrel with her recommendations but said her six-month inquiry wasn’t transparent enough and insisted on a full judicial inquiry. “There are some good recommendations in this report, but it’s clear Ms. Weatherill could have gone further had she had all the information she needed to do a thorough job,” said Wayne Easter, Liberal agriculture critic.
Her report shows the government is incompetent and incapable of properly protecting Canadians’ health and safety, he said. “We now know that action could have been taken sooner by the Conservative government to contain the spread of listeria and that they interfered politically with Ms. Weatherill’s investigation.” Weatherill denied there had been any interference.
NDP Food Critic Malcolm Allen said the “Harper government used Weatherill’s perceived independence as a way to wash their hands of any direct accountability for their mishandling of a very deadly crisis.” Without a judicial inquiry, “Canadians may never get to the bottom of the government’s mishandling of the listeria outbreak.”
The union representing CFIA’s food inspectors called for the immediate implementation of Wetherill’s recommendations, but accused the CFIA and others of withholding information or misleading her.
However, food law lawyer Ron Doering, a former CFIA president, said Weatherill’s report “was a serious attempt to get at what happened. She provides clear recognition of the complexity of this type of crisis.” He applauded her recommendations that the office of food safety and recalls report directly to the CFIA president and to re-establish a food safety advisory board that reports directly to the agriculture minister.
Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain said the report is tough. “And it ought to be, with strong recommendations for further improving the Canadian food safety system. We thought we had a good food safety program last August, but our efforts failed with tragic consequences.”
Weatherill is recommending CEOs and senior managers of meat companies take personal responsibility for ensuring “food safety is imbedded in every level of their business.”
Health Canada should fast track food additives and technologies aimed at food safety and the federal and provincial governments need to better prepare to respond to foodborne illnesses as they will probably become more common in the future.
She also calls for a third-party audit of the inspection resources of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to determine what their workloads should be. Foods should carry precautionary warnings if they could pose a risk to people with compromised health conditions. The government should report within two years on its progress in implementing the 57 recommendations.