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Listeria inquiry may become CFIA review

“It will be hard to do anything of substance that fast.”

– FOOD LAWYER RONALD DOERING

As concerns about listeria and other food safety issues percolated through the Oct. 14 election campaign, federal officials tried to find candidates to head an inquiry promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The appointment i sn’t expected until after the election but with a March 15 deadline for reporting, the government will have to act quickly to get the inquiry in operation, officials said.

Harper wanted to avoid a full judicial inquiry in order to get a speedy food safety review. By the time it’s created, this inquiry will probably have less than five months to complete its work.

Improving policy

Ron Doering, an Ottawa food lawyer and former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said in an interview, “It will be hard to do anything of substance that fast. But these kinds of inquiries can contribute to improving public policy.”

For example, an inquiry in Ontario four years ago into tainted meat products from a provincially regulated plant produced recommendations “that made a real difference,” he said.

The listeria inquiry “will provide a real lightning rod for food safety issues generally because it will be hard to keep it just on listeria and meat inspection.” It’s bound to look into “the role of industry and government in food safety.”

The inquiry will find it hard to ignore pre-election accusations from opposition parties and the union representing CFIA meat inspectors that the Harper government was reducing federal oversight of the food industry and giving companies a greater role in ensuring product safety, other food industry officials said.

Those criticisms mostly arose from leaked versions of a plan to restructure CFIA. The government says it has hired 200 inspectors in the last year and is looking for 58 more.

In addition to contamination linked to deli meats from Maple Leaf Foods’ Bartor Road processing plant in Toronto from August onward, there were significant recalls of cheese in Ontario and Quebec. Then came a string of Chinese milk products ordered off the market in late September in the latest melamine scandal. As well, the Public Health Agency of Canada has issued a public advisory about a salmonella Poona outbreak that has caused a few illnesses, but for which a source isn’t yet found.

The Bartor Road plant on Oct. 8 again halted distribution as four new positive samples of listeria were found in its meat products. None of the products had been put on sale because the plant was still under control of CFIA after the August outbreak.

“While there is no risk to the public, we are behaving in the most conservative way possible, according to the protocols in how these findings are always to be handled,” Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said late Oct. 8.

It was not a surprise that a few cases had been discovered, he said, given that listeria exists in all food plants. The four new cases aren’t linked to the production line that prompted closure of the plant from mid-August through to mid-September, he said.

Warning weeks earlier

Among the key issues the listeria inquiry will focus on is how the slicing machines at Bartor Road became contaminated and why it took weeks for a warning from Toronto Public Health about listeria deaths to be acted on by CFIA.

The Bartor Road plant was connected this summer to a specific strain of listeriosis which as of Oct. 8 is confirmed to have sickened 53 people in seven provinces, mostly in Ontario.

Among those conf i rmed cases, 29 people have died and 20 of those deaths were found to be due or partly due to listeriosis, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported Oct. 8.

In announcing the terms of reference for the inquiry in late September, Harper said it will “make recommendations, based on lessons learned from this event and from other countries in terms of best practices, as to what could be done to enhance both prevention of a similar outbreak occurrence in the future, and removal of contaminated product from the food supply.”

CFIA was formed in 1997 through centralization of inspection duties conducted by the Agriculture, Fisheries, Health and Consumer Affairs departments. Its operation has been criticized on several occasions by the auditor general and in a 2005 internal report, but has never undergone an independent review.

– With files from Reuters and Co-operator staff

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