“If we’re at all concerned about periodic outbreaks of foodborne illness that are very dramatic in terms of newsworthiness, or public interest, then we really have to get at the nuts and bolts of the food safety system.”
– RICK HOLLEY
Canada’s system for protecting its citizens against foodborne illness is no better today despite government pledges to improve it following a deadly listeriosis outbreak two years ago.
It remains a “reactive” system lacking uniformity in food inspection and capacity to collect data on what actually makes people sick, warns a University of Manitoba food science professor in an analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) this winter.
Rick Holley says Canada has been slow to learn several important lessons.
“Safety must be built into foods, not inspected into them,” and “smarter inspection, not more inspection will improve safety,” he said.
Holley’s criticism of the investigations that followed the 2008 outbreak is that they focused too much on beefing up safeguards within the current system, instead of looking at what was fundamentally wrong with it.
“If we’re at all concerned about periodic outbreaks of foodborne illness that are very dramatic in terms of newsworthiness or public interest, then we really have to get at the nuts and bolts of the food safety system,” Holley said in an interview.
Holley’s two main concerns are that food inspection is done to different standards by different levels of government and that Canada lacks a nationwide surveillance system for foodborne illness.
Better co-ordination is needed to make inspection activities and inspection policy uniform across the country, Holley said.
“We’ve got federal inspection and we’ve got provincial inspection and we have public health inspection in food service at city levels. And these folks are all trained differently. They have different backgrounds. And they look for different things.”
NO NATIONAL SURVEILLANCE
Canada’s other weakness lies with having no national surveillance program for foodborne illness, the professor said. Instead, we have what he calls “a passive patchwork of regional systems that feed poor-quality data on illness outbreaks into the database on notifiable infectious diseases.”
Holley doesn’t hold out much hope for a new $135-million pan-Canadian public health surveillance program to be rolled out over the next two years.
This is a national electronic database called Panorama to be implemented across the country to generate high-quality, timely surveillance data at regional, provincial, territorial and federal levels to monitor infectious disease in Canada.
Holley says a number of shortfalls with the new system have already been flagged.
An independent evaluation conducted by KPMG reports that the database will be able to receive but not send data from laboratories, and that it is not designed to manage water quality and food inspections.
“We’re not going to be any further ahead if and when Panorama, will be adopted,” he said. “And it probably will be adopted.”
The province of Alberta will not implement Panorama.
Holley does say Canada’s effort to establish C-EnterNet is a step in the right direction.
However, it’s not known how long it may yet be before the program is fully operational in Canada.
C-EnterNet is short for Canada’s National Integrated Enteric Pathogen Surveillance Program. One sentinel site with a staff of five persons was set up in 2003 as a pilot program in Waterloo, Ontario. The program is mandated to do ongoing monitoring and investigation of food and waterborne diseases and exposure.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) stated long-term plan is to eventually have five sites in operation across Canada.
However, a spokesperson from PHAC this winter can only confirm that one additional site is presently scheduled to begin operating later this year. The location has not yet been disclosed.