New system needed | Industry veteran says existing meat safety system too convoluted
The E. coli contamination at XL Foods highlights the need to get rid of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s deeply flawed compliance verification system, says an industry veteran.
“That thing needs to be chucked out. It needs to be chucked out, not revamped,” said Gerald Third, who spent 32 years in the meat packing business building and operating plants and consulting for packers around the world.
“It is the most ridiculously stupid, redundant program that was ever put on paper, and it doesn’t work.”
The CVS was implemented in all of Canada’s federally registered meat packing plants April 1, 2008. It is a system for federal food inspectors to verify that plants are complying with their hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) plans.
The CFIA says consumers benefit from CVS because it ensures inspections have been done in a consistent, uniform and efficient way regardless of who is conducting the inspection.
But Third, who left the packing business two years ago, said it is a convoluted system that everybody despises and that contributed to the E. coli contamination at XL Foods and the 2008 listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods.
“The program is broken. There is no other way to describe it. It never did work,” he said. “The (CVS) forces HACCP personnel to lie and forge documents in order to succeed.”
Paul Mayers, associate vice-president for policy and programs at the CFIA, said that is a misleading allegation.
“The characterization that companies are fraudulently providing action plans is a little problematic for me because that has not been our experience.”
He said there is a high level of compliance with corrective action requests issued by inspectors, and when there isn’t, as was the case with XL Foods, the CFIA can suspend a company’s operating licence.
“We have very strong tools to respond to situations where companies are only paying lip service to action plans,” said Mayers.
Third said the corrective action requests, which are used by inspectors to correct errors or deficiencies observed in a plant, are bureaucratic and complicated documents that create mass confusion.
He said a plant that seeks clarity on one of these requests is told inspectors are not allowed to elaborate for liability reasons and that it will have to figure out what it means on its own.
“Now the plant is stumped. They don’t know what these people are thinking,” said Third.
He believes the corrective action requests threaten food safety because they allow a plant to continue operating despite a major deviation from its HACCP plan, as long as it has an action plan in place to eventually fix the poorly defined problem.
“You’ve got a failure and you’re allowed to operate for the next six months because you’ve written a plan,” said Third.
Mayers said companies are given time to correct certain problems such as a crack in the floor, but in other circumstances inspectors can demand immediate action, such as when they uncover improper cooking procedures.
“If you’ve got a problem where there is direct product contamination, our inspectors are empowered to take immediate action in terms of shutting that line down. So corrective action requests don’t all come with a lengthy period for correction,” he said.
Third said the CVS system is focused more on paperwork than on practicality. For example, a packer might have 10 pallets of product ready to be shipped to the United States and everything has been done by the book except somebody forgot to fill out one form.
“Guess what? Those 10 pallets do not exist. You’re not allowed to ship them. In fact, you may have to throw them out because the paperwork isn’t there to support it,” he said.
“They inspect programs, they do not inspect processes.”
Mayers said that is inaccurate. The CVS contains components of both document review and physical observation of a plant’s activities.
Third said the CFIA is continually foisting more of its food safety responsibilities onto plants in an effort to reduce the government’s exposure to liability.
Mayers said HACCP makes it extremely clear that food safety is the responsibility of the plant operator. The government’s role is to verify plants have properly assessed hazards, correctly identified controls and are executing their HACCP plans.
“I can certainly understand that there are some players who would prefer that in essence government serves as their quality control. We believe that it’s important that companies be responsible (for) their production,” he said.
Third said HACCP is not a food safety program. Rather, it is a non-tariff trade barrier thrust upon the meat industry by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in response to the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. He claims HACCP measures become more onerous the closer one gets to the U.S. border.
He also said the CFIA’s HACCP compliance verification system is an even bigger farce.
“This program is without a doubt the single biggest disaster that was ever put in place, and Canadians should be absolutely livid over it,” said Third.
“Every HACCP manager, (quality assurance) manager, every vet, every CFIA inspector hates this program. But somehow it’s the sacred item. Nobody wants to challenge it.”
Mayers said he hears the opposite from CFIA employees.
“The inspection staff have broadly noted that they appreciate CVS because it gives a very clear set of directions around the task to be undertaken, so it allows them to plan their time and their work effectively,” he said.