Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Listeriosis report recommendations reveal mistakes made by Harper government

The Weatherill listeriosis report was leaked to CTV last night and it will be publicly released later today. Here are a few of the leaked recommendations that I think are notable (*starred, bolded) and why. The recommendations from Weatherill become a little more interesting when you have a bit more of the context in hand.

First: * Meat plants must report any public safety threats to the government, not just those stemming from positive bacteria tests.

Here is why that is important:
Four months before the Maple Leaf outbreak started claiming lives, Canada's food safety agency quietly dropped its rule requiring meat-processing companies to alert the agency about listeria-tainted meat, a Toronto Star/CBC investigation has found.

Twenty people died as a result of the outbreak this past summer, and federal meat inspectors and their union say this rule change likely made the country's listeria outbreak far worse than it had to be.

Before April 1, if a company preparing meat for sale to the public had a positive test showing listeria it "would have had to have been, not only brought to the (federal) inspector's attention, but the inspector would have been involved in overseeing the cleanup," says Bob Kingston, head of the union that represents Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors.
The CFIA, under Ritz's oversight, had dropped the reporting requirements. In the wake of the above report, the government moved to restore mandatory testing and government notification.

Second: * Canada's chief public health officer must take the lead in any future cases of food-borne illness, lessening any potential political diversions.

Here is why that recommendation has likely been made, public health was stripped of its independence by the Conservatives:
Following the 2003 SARS epidemic and subsequent recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health,7 the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was created and given its own minister in government — a direct line to the prime minister. But in 2006, among Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first acts was to eliminate the PHAC minister and public health's seat at the Cabinet table. His government also left the chief medical officer of health within the ranks of the civil service, working under the minister of health. In so doing, it left our country without a national independent voice to speak out on public health issues, including providing visible leadership during this crisis.
Third: * Ottawa should review the training of federal inspectors, in addition to reviewing inspection resources.

This recommendation speaks to perhaps one of the most important regulatory changes that was made under the Conservatives, the shift from full-time meat inspection to industry self-inspection:
Last November the Canadian government instituted a strategic review of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Among its outcomes was to transfer inspection duties for ready-to-eat meats from the government inspectors to the meat industry. Cabinet decided to "shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, [thereby] allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks."1

In practice, the new policy meant that CFIA inspectors would rarely enter meat plants to test for bacteria and testing was left mostly to companies. Self-inspection came largely to substitute for, and not just to supplement, government inspection. Self-inspection mechanisms have worked effectively in other countries, but in Canada something went very wrong.
A second source on the point of those inspection regulatory changes made under Gerry Ritz and the Harper crew:
A confidential cabinet document, obtained last month by Canwest News Service, outlines a plan to have the inspection of meat and meat products "shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks."
If you just hear these recommendations without context, they're likely to fly right over the heads of most people. Generic, boring news of a government report in the middle of the summer. But if you dig down, the real story is there. While the report doesn't point any fingers, it's clear that regulatory changes made by the Harper government factor significantly into the story of the listeriosis outbreak.