Auditor finds CFIA response inadequate

Food recalls | CFIA probe reveals organization could improve record keeping of events

Federal auditor general Michael Ferguson says that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does a lot right when it deals with food recalls, but it fails on the follow-up.

It is a major gap in the system.

“We concluded that the CFIA did not adequately manage the food recall system,” he said in a report to Parliament last week.

“Although the agency acted promptly to investigate food safety concerns and verified that recalled products were removed from the marketplace, significant improvements to the recall system were needed.”

Ferguson said rules around big-ticket emergency recalls, including the deadly 2008 Maple Leaf listeria incident and the 2012 XL Foods meat recall, created confusion among staff trying to figure out what to do and what to tell the companies.

He told a news conference that the CFIA has done a good job on the “front-end” of food recalls but not so well on the back-end of follow-up.

It gets potentially tainted product off the shelves but does not make sure it does not get back into the food chain, does not keep good records of lessons learned and does not always document what went wrong.

The 2012 XL Foods recall was cited as a particular problem because of the company’s inadequate response to requests for information and records.

“In the high-profile recalls in which emergency procedures were activated, the CFIA did not adequately document the considerations, analysis and rationale for important food safety decisions or communicate this information to key stakeholders,” said the report.

Ferguson said staffing for the CFIA is not the issue. He did not look at CFIA inspection services or staffing.

“The level of resources is a constraint, but processes can be improved with the resources they have now.”

The criticisms were fuel for opposition MPs in the House of Commons who accused the government of putting the health of Canadians at risk through poor tainted food policies.

The government responded with assurances that all the auditor general’s criticisms are accepted and are being addressed.

Throughout the report, the CFIA’s response was that it accepted the criticism and is doing better.

New food legislation approved by Parliament last year and this year’s moving of the CFIA from Agriculture Canada to Health Canada are held out as the government’s response to the critical report, which it has had for several months.

Responding to the auditor general’s report was in part a coming out party for health minister Rona Ambrose in her new role as minister responsible for the CFIA.

She already had announced tougher penalties for meat packers that withhold information or fail to make food safety information available in a timely and usable format. It was a reaction to federal complaints about XL Foods’ performance during last year’s tainted beef crisis.

“I do reiterate that the (Canadian) Food Inspection Agency is already acting on all of these recommendations,” Ambrose told a news conference.

“In fact, they will be complete by spring. Our government will of course continue to ensure that Canadian consumers are provided with the protection that they expect and deserve.”

Opposition MPs saw it differently.

They jumped on the criticism as proof that the federal Conservative government has not fixed the inspection problems found in the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak or the XL Foods E. coli incident.

“The AG reported that CFIA did not properly follow up with companies that sold tainted meat and continued to ignore underlying food safety problems,” said NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen.

“It failed to develop proper emergency plans, creating confusion during emergencies. The CFIA has failed to learn from past incidents.”

Ambrose insisted that the auditor general’s criticisms do not put the Canadian food safety system in doubt.

“We can have confidence that the food safety system in Canada is world class,” she said.

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