Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper reported Saturday that health officials in Ontario ordered hospitals and nursing homes to stop serving Maple Leaf meats five days before the public was told about a deadly source of food poisoning that has so far claimed 19 lives and left another 60 people seriously ill across Canada.
The CFIA launched its investigation on Aug. 6, after officials at the Ontario Ministry of Health informed it that there was an outbreak of listeriosis in the province. Many local health officials were already grappling with a spike in listeriosis cases, but they did not become aware that the outbreak spanned several provinces until July 30, when they received a directive from the ministry, telling them to urgently report any new cases.
On Aug. 14, health officials in Ontario learned during a telephone conference call with the CFIA that the agency had some test results revealing that Maple Leaf deli meats contained the foodborne bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes.
The CFIA waited until it had the DNA fingerprint evidence establishing a definitive link before it went public – on Aug. 19, 2008.
CFIA spokesman Garfield Balsom said,
“We had lab results indicating that there was positive listeria in a product and we would issue our normal recall based on that.”
So epidemiology doesn’t count? If CFIA really does not issue public advisories unless it has a positive result, that would explain the low number outbreaks linked to fresh fruits in vegetables in Canada. Who knows how many sick people there are, and how many illnesses and deaths could have been prevented in the current listeriosis outbreak.
A positive listeria sample would have triggered an immediate recall in the U.S. So what is the CFIA policy on going public – on issuing advisories that specific foods may pose an imminent danger to the health of Canadians. CFIA won’t say what their policy is, at least not publicly, but a policy that maligns epidemiology and relies excessively on positive test results – especially when those samples appear to be delivered by stagecoach – is restrictive and reckless.
As past of that accountability, I told the Toronto Star on Thursday that Canada does not need an inquiry and does not need more inspectors, rather,
"People need to do their jobs. The CFIA is accountable to Parliament through the minister of agriculture, so either the minister, or the Prime Minister's Office, should call the head of CFIA on the carpet and say, `You've had this internal report since 2005. Issue some clear guidelines on how to communicate during an outbreak of food-borne illness. Give clear instructions to inspectors and the industry on what is expected to ensure a safe food supply ... If you can't do that, I will find someone else who can – and not some political appointment, someone with a food safety background who will do what is necessary to protect the safety of the Canadian food supply and bolster the Canadian brand in international circles.'"
Such straight talk, especially when it comes to informing the public about health risks, is largely missing in Canada, experts agree.
So while the politicians and unionists pontificate, a columnist at the University of Calgary student paper got the most rightest:
"Canadians have entrusted one single agency, the CFIA, to protect the entire Canadian food supply-- we have placed all food security in one basket.
"If the CFIA did not exist, perhaps Canadians would be better off. … The current food inspection system has failed Canadians. Maybe it is time for a change."
As an aside, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen who fancies himself as some sort of risk guru wrote Saturday that,
“Another clue lies in the number of listeriosis deaths in past years. According to Statistics Canada, there were five in 2000. In 2001, four. In 2002, seven. In 2003, three. In 2004, one. (Data for subsequent years were unavailable.) …
“The Globe also noted the Canadian regulatory standard is weaker than that of the United States, which allows no listeria content at all in ready-to-eat foods. But the Globe did not report that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 2,500 Americans become seriously ill with listeriosis each year and 500 die.
“Thus the listeriosis fatality rate is far smaller in Canada than the U.S. That, too, does not suggest a crisis.”
The columnist is comparing actual listeria cases in Canada with estimated cases in the U.S. And why no alarm that the most recent numbers in Canada are from 2004?