Cracks revealed in contaminated food database

The agency keeps a list of imports flagged by inspectors for more investigation, but the database isn’t searchable

The computer system used to log investigations at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is old and does not have a reporting function capable of basic searches or performing trend analysis on the agency’s investigation database.

The Western Producer filed an access to information request with the CFIA for issues or food safety concerns related to food and food ingredients imported into Canada from China.

The request yielded a CFIA spreadsheet with 889 food products imported into Canada from China since 2017, which is a list of products on which the CFIA conducted follow-up activities to verify compliance and take actions, as appropriate.

However, extracting useful information from this spreadsheet produced by the CFIA’s investigation management system (IMS) is nearly impossible.

“The way the database was built is that it’s not designed to be kind of like a database that you can extract information from really easy by just putting in a few algorithms or doing a few searches. It’s really based on text,” said Cynthia Biasolo, communications manager at the CFIA.

“I can’t do a search on, for example, if I say ‘OK, can you extract, you know, how many of these investigations were related to, let’s say mould.’ It really doesn’t work that way.”

Marc Richard, senior communication adviser for the CFIA, explained the content of the CFIA list provided to The Western Producer and said of the 889 IMS report numbers on the list, many of the numbers repeat, often because there were separate products being examined in the same investigation.

For example, if five products were being investigated under the same IMS number, and if one of the products “doesn’t meet the standards, that whole IMS will say it doesn’t meet the standards, and you can’t assume that five products have failed. It might have been one,” Richard said.

Of the 889 products on the CFIA spreadsheet, there were 365 separate IMS report numbers.

Richard said 44 of the 365 have not been resolved yet. As well, investigators recorded no deviation in 118 reports, or not able to conclude.

“So you got a total of 44 plus 118, where there were no violation found, and how that goes to products, we’ve got no way to count,” Richard said.

He said there are many reasons why the IMS numbers are duplicated, and that even if an investigation finds a product non-compliant, it may not be for the same reason as the original complaint.

“As you investigate a labelling complaint, you might find that the labelling is overall fine, but that one of the ingredients is not approved for use in Canada. Even if it was found non-compliant, it may not be for the reason that’s indicated in the initial complaint,” Richard said.

“Given that that’s how the data is structured and entered, what seems like a very logical question if it was a very structured database, is pretty much impossible to answer.”

Biasolo said there could also be problems with the transportation of food that is impossible to account for with the IMS.

She said if a transport ship has problems with its refrigeration system that causes mould issues with food products, for instance, the IMS will show an investigation into the food products even though they left China intact.

Richard said he is unaware of a separate system at the CFIA capable of running searches of specific products, food concerns and country of origins within the CFIA investigation database.

“This system (CMS) is meant to document the information, what each inspector did, and who did what at what time. It is not meant to be a management-reporting system about problems with this country or that country, it’s just not built to do that,” Richard said.

To learn if there are any issues or food safety concerns with food and food ingredients imported into Canada from China, third parties, such as The Western Producer, would require access to each CFIA investigation and then create a separate database.

However, this information would be of limited value because it would need to be compared to other countries and domestic food products.

“With time we are getting better, and we do have a mandate to modernize,” Biasolo said.

“So most likely this system will be eventually modernized, especially now we have traceability that we’re getting into so we are going to get more sophisticated, but right now this is a reality.”

On the CFIA’s website are lists of non-compliant and disposed food products provided in quarterly reports, but the country of origin is not provided and trends cannot be examined. It can be found here.

There is also a list of food shipments refused entry into Canada, but this does not include domestic investigations and trends cannot be examined. It can be found at here.

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