Food safety – don’t worry, be happy

By Bob Kingston

Food safety inspectors and managers at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency all share a common view concerning the adequacy of available resources to do their job.

Those I have spoken with – to a person – tell me they are forced to gamble on a daily basis. They must choose which work may not get done and hope no one gets sick as a result. They simply have neither the staff nor the time to do everything required to ensure food companies are complying with safety requirements.

Of course, they can’t say this publicly. They are prevented from speaking out for fear of losing their jobs. Public confidence must be maintained at all costs.

This “don’t worry, be happy” approach to food safety infects the highest levels of Canada’s food safety system.

Based on advice from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Minister Rona Ambrose has characterized public comments from the food inspectors union about the inadequacy of consumer protection inspections as irresponsibly stirring public concern.

Minister Ambrose cannot be blamed for accepting their advice at face value. She has only just taken over some responsibility for the Agency and has probably not had time to speak with anyone outside the CFIA’s executive offices in Ottawa.

If she did – as I do on a daily basis – she might find that many serious issues about food safety inspection have been swept under the carpet where they have resided for years.

Take, for example, the findings of the investigation conducted by Sheila Weatherill into the causes of the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak in the summer of 2008 that claimed the lives of 23 innocent Canadians.

Ms. Weatherill found that the CFIA had no idea how many inspectors were required to ensure food is produced safely after the introduction of a new inspection system.

To prevent a repeat of the Maple Leaf tragedy, she recommended the CFIA conduct an audit to accurately determine “the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors…”.

Six years later, Ottawa has acted on this recommendation, but only for its process meat program. The audit found the program was critically short staffed and CFIA subsequently boosted its ranks by almost 100%.

No other inspection program, however, has undergone a similar audit even though many other commodities pose serious risks of food borne illness. To this day the CFIA remains uninformed when it comes to the demands on its inspection resources and the number of inspectors required to make the system effective for all but this one program.

More recently, Canadians will remember the E.coli outbreak at the XL Meat plant in Alberta which sickened at least seven people and led to the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

Among other things, an investigation concluded that CFIA inspectors were actually instructed to ignore some sanitation problems and contaminated meat products.

In this age of global commerce and the widespread availability of food from around the world stopping unsafe food from reaching grocery shelves is not the purpose of import inspection and only about 2% of food imported into Canada is inspected.

The vast majority of import inspections are conducted to protect plant and animal health, not human health. Inspections of products intended for human consumption are primarily to monitor trends and not to prevent dangerous good from reaching store shelves.

For example, in the unlikely event that the CFIA inspects a shipment of fresh produce observed to be contaminated by an insecticide or fungicide (because it is covered with a coat white powder), results from laboratory tests would not be available until long after that product had reached the dining room table.

While the CFIA has recently established a new licencing program for importers, there have been no inspection staff added to the CFIA’s ranks to monitor these companies or process their paperwork.

When it comes to the consumer protection inspections the food inspectors union has recently discussed publicly, the CFIA has a spotty record of enforcing the rules.

Indeed, journalists recently uncovered documents showing that the CFIA had evidence of food fraud in Vancouver and knowingly allowed a bakery to continue selling bread labeled organic that was made using non-organic ingredients. The CFIA stood on the sidelines and didn’t even tell unsuspecting customers.

Perhaps this explains why the CFIA has not pursued a single prosecution for food fraud in Metro Vancouver in five years.

Puzzling, however, is the decision to disband the unit of inspectors in Metro Vancouver dedicated to enforcing the laws concerning food fraud. Without proactive surveillance – no matter how infrequent – there is zero deterrence preventing those who wish to de-fraud consumers from doing so.

Canadians have a right to accurate product labels in order to know what they are buying.

This is a safety concern for many consumers with medical conditions or allergies that require them to avoid certain food or ingredients. If we don’t raise these issues publicly, more people will have to get sick or worse to force improvements. That’s the irresponsible approach.

Bob Kingston is President of the Agriculture Union – PSAC which represents food inspectors working at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.