In the summer of 2008, Canada was gripped by an outbreak of foodborne illness. The source was Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat that resulted in the deaths of 23 people.
Following the outbreak, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) conducted a post mortem, examining their operations and their actions.
The federal government also asked for an independent investigation, which led to a report and several recommendations.
In October, the CFIA, Health Canada, PEHAC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) released an interim report – Progress on Food Safety – providing information on how they’ve responded to the report and the actions they’ve taken.
The report divided its recommendations into three categories: the food safety system – reducing food safety risks, enhancing surveillance, and improving emergency response.
Here are some highlights on the progress the government has made so far.
Reducing food safety risks:
• Health Canada revised its Policy on Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat Foods in March. The finalized version will be up on its site soon.
• Health Canada has reduced the time required to assess the safety and efficacy of food additives and is developing guidelines to assist industry in identifying the type of food safety intervention that it submits for pre-market approval. The guidelines will be posted on the Health Canada website by the end of 2010.
• Health Canada is hiring additional specialized experts and training more staff to conduct health risk assessments.
• AAFC has collaborated with industry representatives from the Value Chain Roundtables to establish the Agri-Subcommittee on Food Safety (ASFS), which also includes members from CFIA, Health Canada, and PHAC. The purpose of the Subcommittee is to strengthen relationships among all federal food safety partners and the food industry to ensure a common understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all partners.
• In September 2009, CFIA hired 70 inspectors to implement enhanced Listeria controls. The Budget 2010 committed funding to hire an additional 100 inspectors to ensure multi-shift presence in registered meat processing facilities.
• In addition, the CFIA has developed a new national training plan for meat processing inspectors, has evaluated new wireless technologies – some of which will be rolled out by March 31, 2011 – and has updated its manuals and policies and will amend its sampling frequencies for testing of ready-to-eat meats and contact surfaces.
• In February, the federal government launched an online Food Safety Portal. The CFIA has started using social media tools, such as Twitter. And since April, Health Canada added two new interactive web communication tools.
Enhancing surveillance and early detection:
• PHAC has initiated plans for a pilot implementation of Canada Health Infoway’s Panorama system, a pan-Canadian health surveillance software application.
• In order to further increase the number of certified laboratories and staff, PHAC is developing a training curriculum on the standardized DNA fingerprinting methodology which will be delivered to federal and provincial laboratory staff.
• PulseNet Canada (an electronic laboratory network that identifies clusters of foodborne pathogens, including Listeria monocytogenes, based on their DNA fingerprints) now identifies and notifies health partners whenever there are two or more matching Listeria DNA fingerprints within a period of 120 days.
• CFIA has established a Network of Networks Federal Committee (NNFC) with members from CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC.
• Federal surge capacity is being provided through cross-training, laboratory certification and partnership among PHAC, Health Canada and CFIA.
• An enhanced method for the isolation of Listeria (results in three to five days instead of the former seven to 10 days) has been developed and is currently being validated for different food commodities and categories by Health Canada and CFIA. When the validated method is published in the Microbiological Methods Committee’s Compendium of Analytical Methods, by the end of March 2011, industry and other stakeholders will be notified.
Improving emergency response:
• CFIA, Health Canada, PHAC and AAFC have put in place the necessary internal governance mechanisms to be better positioned to share information.
• Following extensive consultation with federal/provincial/territorial partners, Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (a protocol to guide the response to outbreaks of foodborne illness, which was in place in 2008) was finalized in June and is ready to be used in the case of multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks.
• PHAC is developing a Food-borne Illness Emergency Response Plan, including an incident command structure.
The federal government says it has made “considerable progress” overall.
Through Budget 2010, the federal government committed an additional $13 million annually for two years to the CFIA to increase inspection capacity for meat and poultry processing facilities. In 2009, the federal government committed $75 million.
The Progress Report says that Health Canada and the CFIA are jointly looking at legislative options to simplify and modernize federal food-safety related legislation and regulations.
The federal government says Canadians should expect a final report in September 2011 on its implementation of the recommendations, and an assessment of their impact on improving Canada’s food inspection and food safety emergency response systems.