Food agency picks advisory panel

“We didn’t meet the expectations of Canadians in dealing with listeria and that has had a profound effect on the CFIA.”

– Brian Evans, Canadian Food Inspection Agency Executive Vice-President

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is turning to outside experts for advice in battling food safety threats.

It has named four academics to an advisory panel whose first job will be to recommend improvements to CFIA’s listeria prevention rules, said Brian Evans, the agency’s executive vice-president.

The experts include Rick Holley of the University of Manitoba, who sharply criticized CFIA’s handling of the listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods that has killed at least 20.

The other members are Bonnie Buntain, a professor at the University of Calgary, Carleton Gyles, professor emeritus of microbiology at the University of Guelph and Ron Usbourne of the Guelph Food Technology Centre.

“They will deal with new and ongoing risks,” Evans said in an interview. “We don’t want to limit what the panel can look at. We want to tap into the best minds on the subject inside and outside government; no one has a monopoly on good food safety ideas. We have to make sure all the questions are asked as part of our continuous improvement efforts.”

Gyles is the editor of the Canadian Veterinary Journal and should bring ideas to the panel on getting vets more involved in the successful implementation of on-farm food safety programs, Evans said.

“We have to manage risks in the food system right from the start,” he said, and safe farm practices are important “because you can’t make safe food from unsafe farm products.”

An advisory panel had been on the drawing board for some time, Evans adds, but the Maple Leaf outbreak pushed it ahead. “We didn’t meet the expectations of Canadians in dealing with listeria and that has had a profound effect on the CFIA.”

He wants the panel to work with Health Canada, the Public Health Agency and provincial governments, which also have a role in food safety protection in Canada. While the panel will report to CFIA president Carol Swan, its reports and recommendations will be on the agency’s website

Ronald Doering, an Ottawabased food lawyer and former CFIA president, said it was a good move to seek additional advice from the academic community. “There are many complicated issues in food safety and meat production.”

But he found it strange that while the panel is being created, the government and CFIA hasn’t fulfilled a statutory obligation to appoint the 12-member advisory board as called for in the legislation that created the agency in 1997. The three-year term of the first board expired and was never renewed by the government. “It was to provide feedback to the government on how CFIA was handling risks to the food supply. It was an important accountability mechanism,” Doering said.

No review chief yet

As well, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has yet to appoint a chairman to head a review of the federal response to the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak. It is to report by March 15.

Speaking about the expert panel’s duties, Evans said he asked the members to comment on the changes to the listeria management policy by the end of November. The panel will also look at how successful CFIA is at keeping its operations transparent to the public. “We hope that through the website, we will attract questions from the public about food safety.”

The panel will also offer suggestions on how government can better protect food safety and be accountable to the public, Evans said. It will also keep an eye on emerging microbial risks to food.

“We have to recognize that we are in a global food system and that we won’t solve problems with yesterday’s inspection methods. We need to apply our resources to the areas of highest risk.”

The experts have a 12-month appointment that could be renewed, he said. CFIA will select experts to assist with other contentious areas, such as plant protection and animal health issues in an era of climate change.

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