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Auditor General: Food-Recall System Needs ĎSignificant Improvementsí to Keep Consumers SafeWednesday, November 27, 2013 > 09:57:39
(The Vancouver Sun – Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News)
Canada’s food recall system has not been properly managed by the federal government and “significant improvements” are needed to keep consumers safe, says the federal auditor general.
In his report released Tuesday, Michael Ferguson blasted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for shortcomings in its oversight of the food safety system.
Although he cited instances of where the food recall process is “generally working well,” he also noted disturbing problems. For instance, in the areas reviewed, auditors often did not find proof the CFIA fulfilled its responsibility to follow up with food manufacturers after a recall to ensure their product was either relabelled or destroyed.
“For most of the recalls we examined, the incomplete documentation prevented us from being able to verify that the CFIA had adequate assurance that foods posing serious safety risks to Canadians did not re-enter the marketplace,” revealed Ferguson.
“We concluded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did not adequately manage the food recall system. Although the Agency acted promptly to investigate food safety concerns and verified that recalled products were removed from the marketplace, significant improvements to the food recall system were needed.”
Indeed, Ferguson told a news conference that while the agency performed many of the “front-end” aspects of food recalls well – moving quickly and letting the public know of the recall – there are problems in the later stages of recalls.
Among the problems he cited are internal government emergency procedures triggered by three “large-scale recalls” that occurred in 2012. Ferguson said officials often don’t properly understand those procedures, “leading to confusion, particularly for those who are normally responsible for leading and managing food safety investigations and recalls.”
He said many of these “weaknesses” stem from “long-standing” problems that had not been fixed.
Ferguson said auditors found “many examples of incomplete documentation of important decisions and key steps in the recall process.”
Health Minister Rona Ambrose, who is responsible for the CFIA, focused Tuesday on how the agency was complimented for its quick work in recalls. She downplayed Ferguson’s other criticisms as mere “administrative” matters related to the “paperwork” that must be done after a recall.
“My message to consumers is that they can have confidence in the current food system,” she said, adding that the government will implement all of Ferguson’s recommendations by next spring.
Later, in the House of Commons, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper on what he will do “to address this government’s systemic failure to keep Canadians’ food supply safe.” But Harper brushed aside the question, saying the governing Tories have brought in tougher penalties and enhanced controls for meat labelling.
Canada’s food safety system is made up of many players, from manufacturers to government inspectors. Since 2004, all food recalls have been voluntary. But the CFIA manages the recall process on behalf of the federal government and “makes sure that industry takes appropriate action when a voluntary recall is implemented,” said Ferguson.
In recent years, Canada has had some large and high-profile food recalls. In 2008, an outbreak of listeriosis caused the Maple Leaf Foods plant in southern Ontario to close its plant and recall its processed meats. Last year, the largest meat recall in Canadian history occurred when E. coli was found in beef products from a meat processing plant in Alberta owned by XL Foods.
Ferguson revealed that although meat “establishments” are required to maintain distribution records so that products can quickly be found during a recall, “timely access” to those records was a “challenge” for two recalls in 2012. For instance, XL Foods was “slow” in providing distribution records.
“We note that such delays are not a recent problem,” wrote Ferguson, adding the CFIA has “encouraged” industry to do better. “However, given that the Agency continues to experience difficulties in obtaining timely and usable information, stronger measures are needed.”
Last week, Ambrose said the government plans new penalties for companies that withhold information, such as a positive E. coli test result, or records needed for a food safety investigation.