Alex Binkley on what you put in your mouth

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

Putting food safety in perspective

Watch what you put in your mouth

'Food safety is a journey not a destination'

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
If you like to eat but wonder about the safety of what you’re putting in your mouth, you should read the recent report of the expert panel that investigated the XL Foods contaminated beef fiasco last year.

The incident, which the panel called thoroughly preventable, sickened 18 and resulted in thousands of tonnes of beef products being dumped in land fills, probably much of it needlessly.

This is no feel good report and should matter even to people who don’t eat red meat because the problems the panel found in the Brooks plant could happen to any kind of food facility.

At least read the executive summary and the conclusion to get its essential messages. The report matters because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is making sweeping changes to its operations and people in the food business as well as consumers should have assurances they will prevent a repeat of the XL Foods repeat debacle.

“We found a weak food safety culture at the Brooks plant, shared by both plant management and CFIA staff,” the report says. The CFIA had warned the company previously about food safety shortcomings yet the panel found a long list of problems that hadn’t been rectified even though they should have been obvious to the inspectors in the plant.

The largest ever meat recall in Canada was the result “of a series of inadequate responses,” the report points out. XL employees and CFIA staff “played the most critical part … We found that responsibilities towards food safety programs were not always met – by both plant staff and CFIA officials on site. We found a relaxed attitude towards applying mandatory procedures – clearly outlined in some documents, less so in others. Again, a shortcoming shared by both plant and CFIA staff.” While the government can say Canada has one of the safest food supplies, those observations point out painful shortcomings.

In addition to 30 recommendations, the panel tells both the government and the food industry that “Policies and procedures alone will never meet their intended objectives if they are not adhered to and followed consistently. A strong food safety culture must be a goal shared by everyone in a food plant along with government inspectors if it is to succeed. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

To the government, the answer to the report is the dispatch of roving squads of super inspectors to check the plants and their inspectors. To many in the food industry, CFIA needs a more fundamental change in attitude that emphasizes continual improvement in food safety rather than focusing on gotcha for rule violations although there doesn’t seem to have been enough of that in the XL case.

XL shouldn’t be regarded as a one-off situation but an incident that luckily didn’t kill anyone and shone a spotlight on the kinds of change most needed in food inspection in Canada.

Opposition MPs say the federal government still has a long way to go to fulfill the recommendations of an inquiry into a deadly food poisoning outbreak in 2009.

“Four years after the Weatherill report issued recommendations for improving food inspection, we have another report that points out deficiencies in meat inspection,” said Malcolm Allen, the NDP agriculture critic.

Liberal spokesman Frank Valeriote said the report points to the need for a great emphasis on training of CFIA inspectors. The government claims it has improved training since the release of the Weatherill report but the XL report makes it clear what the Agency has done is inadequate, he said.

Ritz said CFIA has been proactive in responding to the recommendations and is making sure its inspection staff is full training in the compliance verification system that inspectors are supposed to use to make sure food plants follow all the safety rules.

CFIA President George Da Pont said his agency “has made a tremendous effort to implement the recommendations of the Weatherill report. It investigated the 2008 Listeria outbreak that killed 23 and sickened scores more and present the government with a wide range of actions to undertake.

The XL report offers 30 recommendations to improve food safety and tells the government that, “Policies and procedures alone, however, will never meet their intended objectives if they are not adhered to and followed consistently.”

Ritz says the government will invest nearly $16 million over the next three years to establish Inspection Verification Teams (IVTs) to conduct surprise spot checks of food plants to make sure the company’s employees and CFIA inspectors are doing their jobs. He is to soon release a list of actions the government is taking in response to the report’s recommendations. CFIA, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada will work together to address all remaining recommendations of the expert advisory panel.

A strong food safety culture must be a goal shared by everyone in a food plant along with government inspectors if it is to succeed, the report noted. “Problems are inevitable if an individual at one station overlooks a problem in the expectation that someone at the next one will address it. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The report points out that “An effective food safety program depends on ongoing processes that involve all levels of an organization. It requires a philosophy of and commitment to monitoring, verifying, and validating – all of which contribute to a process of continuous improvement. Food safety is a journey, not a destination.” That support from the top was lacking at XL.

The XL recall “was exacerbated by a number of key factors, the report said. “The company's record-keeping was wanting. It was unprepared to deliver important product and distribution information promptly to inspection authorities. Because the recall involved the country's second largest beef processor, producers had few alternatives for their cattle once the plant closed.

Coordination of communications with the public left consumers confused and worried. Over a period of several weeks, they heard that more and more product was not to be consumed. It is no surprise that polls suggest Canadians worry most about E. coli O157:H7 contamination in their food, and believe that it is on the rise.

“Canada's food safety system is a complex one; given the several jurisdictions that govern us, that system necessarily involves many players. Despite some challenges, however, it works. It is recognized globally as a sound approach to food safety. That said, continuous improvement is vital if we are to remain ahead of the food safety curve.”

The report can be found at (