Food Safety Process Has Political Overtones

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“Food plant operators usually do their best to avoid health issues, as it is not in their best interest to kill their customers.”

Consumers and the Canadian food production system have been well served by independent investigator Sheila Weatherill’s report into the 2008 listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods. Her report tactfully spreads around the blame for the way the outbreak occurred and how it was handled by industry and government. No doubt that was to the dismay of federal opposition parties and their union friends who were desperately trying to link the outbreak to some Conservative government policy or cutbacks.

Contrary to what union politicians insisted, this outbreak never had anything to do with more food inspectors (which is the union’s only interest) in meat-processing facilities. Clearly, a hundred more government inspectors in the Maple Leaf food plant would not have prevented the outbreak, being it was a hidden mechanical problem.

Food plant operators usually do their best to avoid health issues, as it is not in their best interest to kill their customers. Therfore it would seem that more, better and quicker laboratory testing for bacterial contamination should be the goal of food safety, as visual inspection has severe shortcomings.

What the report stated is that once bacterial contamination problems are identified there has to be a more robust process in place to deal with the matter in a timely way. That has to do not just with the plant operator, but with the government agencies that oversee the inspection process – but therein lies the problem.

The study is forthright in identifying the competing bureaucratic control interests of two powerful government agencies, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Public Health Agency. What’s interesting about agencies that jockey for power is not just how they can throw their weight around, but how at times they may just stand by to make a point. It’s just part of the bureaucratic mentality to protect your turf or gather new power.

The report makes a number of recommendations to improve responsibility, management and communication for all the stakeholders involved in a foodborne disease outbreak -– many of which have already been implemented. It would also seem that government oversight agencies need to better understand their roles in an outbreak and those roles need to be cast in stone so that turf battles don’t continue. That may be easier said than done.

Government politicians have learned the hard way that food safety issues of any kind have a habit of blowing up in their faces and opposition parties are all too eager to fuel the fire. Consumers expect governments to protect the food supply and any problem has immediate political consequences. That has caused governments to create arm’s-length agencies to look after food safety and health issues. That gives them the opportunity to hand off the problem to the bureaucrats in those agencies and claim it is being looked after by the experts. That may be a clever way to cover your political butt but it gives bureaucrats too much discretionary power.

Case in point is the CFIA. The Investigator’s report highlights a number of operational and governance problems and shortcomings with that agency. The report makes recommendations to correct those deficiencies and to at least have better accountability from CFIA.

The problem is politicians seem to be too timid to take on this big dog and the bureaucrats know it. The CFIA has a reputation of being its own boss and making political decisions in the absence of ministerial leadership. The CFIA handling of the BSE outbreak has been criticized for worsening the situation by not taking decisive actions on testing and trade and now causing unnecessary costs by imposing more regulations than our trading partners. It’s no wonder that CFIA involvement with the listeriosis outbreak is questioned in the report.

What the report does not contain was to recommend better technology to deal with bacterial contamination like listeriosis. Such technology has existed for 50 years but the same authorities that are involved in managing the prevention of contamination and outbreaks have blocked implementation of the technology. Irradiation, also known as cold pasteurization, may have prevented this outbreak from occurring in the first place.

An interesting historical note is that in the 1920s there was considerable opposition to the implementation of mandatory pasteurization of milk. Today no one would question that food safety practice. It’s also noteworthy that the US. armed forces requires all its food purchases, where applicable, to be irradiated to prevent food poisoning of its troops. Is there a message there?

But Health Canada bureaucrats have for the past 10 years delayed the approval of irradiation for use on meat products like hamburger (the U.S. has already approved its use on hamburger). That process can destroy not only listeriosis but also E. coli, salmonella and other foodborne contaminants. It’s only a hope, but maybe consumers and governments will remember that the next time there is another food-poisoning outbreak.

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