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Food safety needs high priority

Posted on December 4, 2013 by Lethbridge Sun Times

One of the areas targeted by Auditor General Michael Ferguson in his latest report issued last week is food safety. Ferguson’s department examined 59 food recalls, including the September 2012 recall of more than million kilograms of beef products in Canada and the U.S. which the report says was the largest meat recall in Canada’s history.

In his analysis, Ferguson was critical of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s handling of the food recall system between 2010 and 2012, indicating the agency lacked the necessary documentation to determine if recalled food products had been disposed of, and didn’t have the information needed to identify and fix the problems that prompted the recall in a timely fashion.

Registered meat establishments are required to maintain product distribution records to help in quickly locating products during a food safety investigation. “We noted that in two large meat recalls in 2012, timely access to distribution records was a challenge,” Ferguson said in the report.

The report noted that delays aren’t a new problem. A failure to provide timely distribution records was identified as an issue in the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that sickened close to 60 people and claimed 22 lives.

On the positive side, the report found that the first three steps in the CFIA’s food recall process was working well for the most part — “from when a food safety issue is first identified to conducting the investigation and making recall decisions.” In the cases that were studied, the audit found that the CFIA initiated an investigation promptly and was, in most cases, also prompt in issuing a recall.

The weaknesses identified by the audit were partly related to long-standing issues. “For example, the agency’s guidance for managing food safety investigations and recalls is incomplete, unclear, and not finalized on a timely basis. This can lead to confusion about responsibilities and the actions that must be taken at all stages in the investigation and recall process,” said the report.

As the AG’s report also noted, “Emergency procedures need to be well established, understood, and tested so that the CFIA is prepared to act quickly when managing large and complex food recalls.” It’s important because the CFIA is essentially the last line of defence “to protect Canadians from preventable food safety risks.”

The report stressed that the audit focused solely on the federal government’s actions with respect to food safety procedures and did not look at the actions of provinces, territories or industry.

The federal government has been quick to respond to Ferguson’s report, with Health Minister Rona Ambrose indicating that all of the report’s recommendations will be implemented by spring.

The role of other levels of food safety oversight is also crucial. In much the way a water treatment plant uses a series of screening and purification processes to process safe drinking water, Canada’s food safety system needs to have all the levels of safeguards operating properly in order to provide Canadian consumers with the best possible protection.

An editorial from the Lethbridge Herald

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