Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Ritz to get some mid-summer reading

Tomorrow, the Sheila Weatherill report on last summer's listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 Canadians is handed to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz: "Investigator to present report on deadly listeriosis outbreak." It's going to be reviewed carefully by those with a stake in Canadian food safety (really, all of us!) and it will be interesting to see how far her recommendations and analysis go. Will Weatherill stick to a discreet analysis of the goings on at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto, as the Conservatives surely hope, or will she broaden her recommendations in view of last summer's failings and their root causes. Specifically, will there be any uncomfortable measures for this Conservative government to swallow?

The "factions" on the Agriculture sub-committee on Food Safety have already staked out their positions. The Conservative minority on the committee filed their own dissenting report, here. They provide a series of 22 recommendations, in their totality arguing for systemic responsibility, many actors at play, don't ya know. Notably, regarding last summer's outbreak, the Conservatives emphasize that essentially no one foresaw the risk of "buildup of organic material deep inside the meat slicers." There is testimony to that effect noted in the majority report too although there is some disagreement over whether a better inspection and equipment audit regime would have enabled such risks to be detected. It does seem like a remarkable statement for risk in the food industry and it's not surprising to read the Conservative position highlighting it as being a determinative point. Here's their concluding paragraph that gives you a sense of the Conservative food safety philosophy:
Food safety is the responsibility of all Canadians. The listeria outbreak has shown that even with the most sophisticated risk-based approach to food safety, sometimes things can literally fall between the cracks and grow into large problems. The emphasis needs to be put onto all levels of government to ensure that the food they inspect is safe for consumption and that when a health incident does occur; cooperation takes precedence over turf wars. It is equally incumbent upon industry to ensure that the food they grow, process, transport, sell, and cook for Canadians is safe. Finally, it is up to the consumer to ensure that the food they eat is handled and prepared properly. It is when all of these groups work together, we can all be sure that our food is safe. (emphasis added)
It literally fell between the cracks, Canadians.

The recommendations of the majority on the committee are a little more pointed in some respects. Recommending for example, a public inquiry, right off the top (#1). A recommendation that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency work "cooperatively with the union" on inspector resources (#5), a reflection of the obvious friction that was in evidence throughout last summer's outbreak, with the union frequently "whistle blowing," for lack of a better term, about the changes to the inspection regime that Minister Ritz ushered in. Here's another (#13) that clearly speaks to a perception from last summer's outbreak as well:
The Subcommittee recommends that the government review the legislative basis for the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Chief Public Health Officer with a view to ensuring independence from government departments and ministerial influence, so as to protect and restore faith and confidence in Canada’s public health system.
So, all eyes on the Weatherill report this week to see how far she goes.