Understanding the Listeriosis Outbreak in Canada

One year after 56 Canadians fell ill and 22 died from infections they contracted after consuming processed meat contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. Sheila Weatherill, the investigator appointed by Government of Canada, reported her findings.

Weatherill chronicles our food safety system's failure to prevent the listeriosis outbreak and the subsequent mismanagement of the crisis once it was underway. She concludes with 57 recommendations which she suggests will help prevent similar outbreaks and improve the response to a food safety emergency in the future.

The Report of the Independent Investigator into the 2008 Listeriosis Outbreak was released on July 21, 2009. Beyond Factory Farming supports the recommendations and urges the federal government to implement them quickly and effectively. We would also like to highlight additional areas that need attention in order to promote a healthier food system.

Areas where the Weatherill report could be strengthened:

Industrialization of food not addressed

Weatherill points out that changes in the food system resulting from globalization and industrialization have had a huge impact on food safety, yet our agencies that deal with food-borne illnesses still assume that smaller scale production and localized processing and distribution are the norm. (page viii) Recommendation 56 asks the government to respond to the new industrialized context in its food safety policy-making.

However Beyond Factory Farming believes that addressing the root cause – industrialization of food -- is the key to ensuring safe food for Canadians. Beyond Factory Farming believes that reducing the scale of food production enterprises and making food preparation and processing simpler, slower and more decentralized should be the goal of federal policy. This way food safety issues could be more easily and quickly addressed at a lower financial and human cost. In the interim, large food companies such as Maple Leaf Foods need to be held to strict food safety standards.

Irradiation not acceptable.

Weatherill's Recommendation #12 calls for fast-tracking approval of new food additives and technologies, including food irradiation, as mentioned on page 22 of the report. Beyond Factory Farming is opposed to irradiation of meat. Irradiation is not consistent with sustainable local food systems, and could be used to mask unsanitary practices and cut labour costs at large-scale centralised plants.

Canada currently allows some foods to be irradiated, but not meats. The USA does allow meat and poultry to be irradiated, and it does not require irradiated food served in restaurants or institutions to be labelled as such. Several American advocacy groups, including Food and Water Watch continue to fight food irradiation in their country.

Lack of capacity at the CFIA

Hand in hand with poor management, the CFIA appears to be under-resourced and understaffed. Weatherill said “Due to the lack of detailed information and differing views heard, the Investigation was not able to determine the current level of resources as well as the resources needed to conduct the CVS (Compliance Verification System) activities effectively.” This statement seems to indicate that there was a lack of full cooperation with the investigator, which casts another shadow upon the CFIA and/or the federal government.

Failure to adequately staff the CFIA may be the result of confusion in government priority setting. In a market oriented policy environment, perhaps the prevailing opinion is that product safety matters are best left to market competition to sort out. If a company is risking its reputation, sales and market share by selling an inferior product, it will be disciplined through lost profits and costs of litigation, therefore the government simply gets out of the way. Employing regulatory staff would be seen as wasting dollars that could otherwise be made available for tax cuts. The question of liability of the regulator is then posed.

Dual role of CFIA not addressed

The CFIA has a dual role – to promote the commercial interests of the Canadian agri-food industry in export markets and to protect the health of Canadians by safeguarding food and agriculture. Weatherill's report touches on, but does not clearly articulate the dual mandate as a reason for the high degree of confusion stemming from the CFIA's mixed messages during the outbreak. Weatherill recommended a third party assessment of the CFIA's inspection capacity, as well as improved training and supervision.

The report's description of the failure of the CFIA to do its part to prevent the outbreak shines a light on an organizational management culture that does not make food safety a priority. To change such a culture it is necessary to change the values that inform it. For its values to fundamentally change a change in the CFIA's mandate is required. Without a change in mandate the recommended reforms will continue supporting corporate competitiveness at the expense of public safety.

HACCP okay in spite of its failure?

Weatherill endorses the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) management system saying "The mandatory Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan is a sound food safety approach for meat processing." (page 35). Yet her report then goes on to detail the failure of HACCP at the Maple Leaf plant.

The approved but deficient HACCP plan for the Maple Leaf Bartor Road facility made it difficult for the company and the CFIA to accept that a problem existed. The assumption that the HACCP plan was correct led to cleaning already clean surfaces repeatedly while ignoring the contaminated high-speed cutting machines that had not been identified as a “critical control point.” The HACCP plan did not include actual testing of the final product – proving that everything could be done “properly” and deadly bacteria in meat could still be packaged and sold to the public. .

The international guidelines for trade-related food safety regulations, CODEX Alimentarius, supports HACCP but it also provides for actual product testing as well. CODEX guidelines are a tool for countries to agree upon reasonable standards for food-related regulations so as to avoid disputes over regulations that may be seen as non-tarrif trade barriers.

At the time of Canada's listeriosis outbreak, CODEX allowed for a more stringent standard for products intended for high-risk populations, and it specified the maximum level of listeria contamination at the “best-before date” (because the bacteria reproduces in unopened packages). Recently CODEX adopted a zero tolerance standard for listeria in ready-to-eat products.

Canada does not have such a standard, and unfortunately this important factor was not mentioned in the Weatherill report.

Link to heath care budget cuts ignored

Weatherill reported that 80 percent of the listeriosis victims were served the contaminated lunch meat in hospitals or long-term care homes, and that Maple Leaf produced large packs of sandwich meat in response to demand for large quantities of easy-to-serve food for institutions. When hospitals and senior citizens homes have to make do with less, food service is often where cuts are made. Instead of having professional cooks preparing food on site using locally sourced basic foods, institutions increasingly outsource ready-to-serve food as a way to save on labour costs. Tax cuts and subsequent health care budget cuts probably played a role in the 2008 listeriosis crisis as well. The most vulnerable people with the greatest need for safe, nutritious, wholesome food are the ones who suffer.

Beyond Factory Farming would like to see health authorities promote locally sourced whole foods and full service kitchens providing food for all facilities. Keeping institutional procurement and preparation of food local will ensure any food safety problems can be easily prevented and more quickly addressed if they do occur. Supporting local farmers, local food processors and paying skilled kitchen staff builds community which is one of the social determinants of health. Good food makes a major contribution to quality of life.

Another listeria recall at Maple Leaf

On August 3, 2009 wieners produced at Maple Leaf's Hamilton plant were recalled due to listeria contamination. “Test and hold” protocols were used at the Bartor Road facility after it reopened in order to ensure that no contaminated product reached consumers. Did Maple Leaf and the CFIA learn anything from their mistakes?

The Weatherill report is definitely worth reading for an education on Canada's food safety regulatory system, the operations of the CFIA and Maple Leaf Foods.