The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is in the doghouse after a critical report from the Auditor General's office. We look at its criticisms. We also outline the 'Safe Food for Canadians' action plan and report on the expansion of FoodNet Canada. Canada's food recall and safety systems are overdue for reform. It's time for industry to get to the forefront of the discussions.
The regulatory food system in Canada is undergoing critical changes – changes designed to position its food safety system for the coming decades. Industry stakeholders can bring a valuable 'real time/real world' perspective to the framing of new regulatory systems and must be involved to ensure their views are taken into account.
Since 2008, the Federal Government has invested around C$517 million in food safety. This includes funding the hire of food inspectors, improving inspection approaches to food safety, delivering better training for food inspectors, and increasing scientific capacity within the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (the CFIA).
Despite this, it seems that major changes are needed. The growing concerns of manufacturers and suppliers about the CFIA's approach and its management of recalls were reflected in criticisms contained in the Auditor General's report published last autumn (Report of the Auditor General of Canada: Fall 2013). We explore these concerns on the facing page.
Since 2004, all food recalls in Canada have been 'voluntarily' carried out by the responsible firm, but the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada can order a mandatory recall (under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act) if the CFIA determines that a product poses a health risk. The CFIA may seize and detain the product if the firm is unwilling to remove the product from the marketplace and dispose of it appropriately.
Canada has seen a series of highprofile recalls where new recalls of a product were announced, involving a connection to an earlier recall. A common scenario involved the CFIA announcing a product recall after reports of a possible link between the product and some form of bacterial contact or contamination; some hours or days later, one or more subsequent recalls were then announced for either the same product with different lots, batches, sell-by dates or distributors, or for products that used the product originally recalled as an ingredient.
This type of recall is known as a derivative recall: subsequent recalls either flow from, or are based on, the first announced recall.
In 2013 in Canada, roughly 25 per cent of the Class 1 (highest risk) recalls announced by the CFIA (from January 1 to November 12) were derivative recalls. Derivative recalls were also announced where a moderate risk was identified (Class 2) and where the recall had been classified as low risk or no risk (Class 3).
Many recent derivative recalls are precautionary: no contamination or food safety issue has been identified and no reports of illness or injury received. Some recalls could relate to safety issues inherent in the product as opposed to any manufacturing defect; press releases connected to the recall of beef, for example, highlighted the importance of safe food-handling practices by consumers and advised of the dangers of undercooking meat.
The number and frequency of derivative recalls announced seems to bear little connection with the level of risk posed by the product being recalled – a regulatory position that could over time increase, rather than reduce, risk to consumers. Consumers could begin to ignore recalls or treat recalls with complacency. In a 2009 study, the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers found that only 59 per cent of Americans had ever looked for a recalled food item, and 12 per cent reported they had eaten a food they believed had been recalled. The same study showed that most Americans had little understanding of the regulatory regime relating to recalls.
There is no sign of comparable recent research in Canada and little research on the impact that derivative recalls have on consumer responsiveness in either Canada or the US. Researchers at the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers suggest that the risk of 'recall fatigue' rises where there are many recalls that demand consumer attention or when consumers believe that the consequences are not serious enough to warrant action.
Where an actual risk to food safety is identified, recall fatigue raises the serious question as to the effectiveness of a public recall notice as a reliable mechanism for food safety communications. But there is reason for optimism. In October 2013, a transition began toward new oversight of the CFIA by Health Canada, which is already responsible for regulating most aspects of food and drug safety. This new oversight may allow for a re-evaluation of the CFIA's approach to recalls and implementation of the Auditor General's recommendations.
Auditor General: CFIA could do better
CFIA communications to stakeholders inadequate
The Auditor General found that the CFIA's emergency response plan for food safety issues was inadequate. The plan, in draft form since 2004, created new governance structures when emergency measures were activated. These structures were not understood by some officials, contributing to confusion among CFIA staff and stakeholders, some of whom did not realise that decision-making responsibilities shifted when the emergency response plan was invoked.
The CFIA did not adequately document the considerations, analysis and rationale for important food safety decisions or communicate this information to key stakeholders when dealing with highprofile recalls managed under emergency procedures. There were 'many' examples of incomplete documentation of important decisions and key steps in the recall process; the CFIA could not confirm whether recalls were carried out across Canada and in accordance with the CFIA's own requirements.
In the case of one high-profile beef recall, CFIA officials instructed a food distribution company to recall products from a date not subject to the recall. In addition, the rationale for selecting the five production dates recalled and excluding other dates was not adequately documented.
There was not enough evidence demonstrating the CFIA's analysis and considerations of this and other important decisions.
Strained relationship between CFIA and the industry
During the beef recall (noted above), firms that had received the recalled products were provided with conflicting information on the scope of the recall.
Company representatives from the recalling firms received multiple information requests from a number of CFIA officials, creating confusion and an increased workload. This was a key factor in delaying the CFIA's receipt of distribution information in this recall.
The CFIA needs to provide clear requests for information – preferably in writing and with a level of priority indicated for each request – and, ideally, a single designated point of contact.
Increase in 'derivative' recalls
There is no timely or effective way for a firm to challenge a determination by the CFIA that a product poses a health risk in advance of a recall being conducted.
Because of the difficulties involved in mounting a challenge, and to avoid potential negative publicity, some manufacturers have begun considering broader voluntary recalls – recalls of foods that bear no genuine risk or connection with the original recall – in order to avoid subsequent derivative recalls of food that would have been safe to consume if properly prepared. This can lead to significant food wastage, leading to economic loss and poor food resources management.
Canada's food safety surveillance system, FoodNet Canada, has expanded to three surveillance sites, a new one covering Calgary and Central Alberta, and existing sites in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario and the Fraser Region in British Columbia.
The FoodNet sites collect information about food-borne illnesses and trace those illnesses back to their sources, such as food, water and animals.
The data will help to track illnesses and causes of those illnesses over time, enabling federal and provincial governments, industry and other food safety partners to take effective prevention measures.
Safe Food for Canadians
The Canadian Government announced its 'Safe Food for Canadians' action plan in 2013 – one of a number of measures in place to prepare for new food safety legislation in Canada.
Stronger food safety rules
The CFIA will
- improve the safety of imported food by requiring food importers to put in place clear controls to ensure the food they sell is compliant with Canadian regulations
- develop new rules to reduce the risks posed by pathogens.
A commitment to service
The CFIA will
- build a secure electronic interface so that the CFIA can share information and conduct transactions more effectively with industry and international partners
- introduce a clear, consistent set of inspection and enforcement rules that will significantly reduce red tape for Canadian food producers.
More information for consumers
The CFIA will
- maintain its food recall and public alert system
- find new ways of sharing its work with Canadians
- explore other types of information that will have value to Canadians and explore the best means of sharing this information
- launch a comprehensive and public review of its requirements and enforcement for food labelling.
More effective inspection
The CFIA will
- design a new food inspection model to improve industry compliance with food safety legislation
- deliver better training to inspectors and improve recruitment strategies
- enhance science capacity
- empower inspectors to request that an individual start or stop an activity to adhere to the law, and prevent obstruction or interference with inspectors as they carry out their duties
- establish 16 centres of expertise to bring together knowledge in specific programmes or food commodities
- increase testing capacity
- modernise science facilities and equipment
- develop an integrated food laboratory network with other partners involved in food safety, such as provinces and municipalities
- seek new and effective ways to partner with industry.
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