CANADA: CFIA slammed for its handling of listeriosis outbreak
Posted: May 28th, 2009 - 8:58am
OTTAWA -- In front of a parliamentary subcommittee Wednesday, the medical health officers for Ontario and the City of Toronto chastised the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for its handling of last summer's listeriosis outbreak.
"This was a national outbreak, but it wasn't clear that the national public health officer had a mandate for leadership at the federal level," Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, told the committee.
Williams, along with Dr. David McKeown, Toronto Public Health medical officer, testified at a special parliamentary probing the state of food safety in Canada.
The committee was called after people consumed contaminated meat last summer from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, resulting in the death of 22 Canadians.
That death toll was exacerbated by "a lack of effective communication" among health agencies, Williams said, along with what the health officers suggest are differences in reporting procedures between the federal health authorities, and their local and provincial counterparts.
Public health officials should act when there are "reasonable and probable grounds to believe food products poses a health hazard," McKeown explained, adding this "standard" is included in Ontario's public health legislation. But the CFIA generally waited for "conclusive evidence" a specific product is responsible for documented human illness before taking action, he said.
"To wait until one has evidence beyond doubt . . . is often too late to protect the public," McKeown said.
The doctors' testimony Wednesday echoed a report last month by Ontario's Ministry of Health, which concluded the response to food-borne disease outbreaks — such as listeriosis — needs to be strengthened and better co-ordinated.
Williams said the ministry's public health division detected an increase in listeriosis cases in mid-July 2008, suggesting it was an emerging sign of an outbreak.
The province issued an alert on July 29 through the Canadian Integrated Outbreak Surveillance Centre, informing local health units, Public Health Agency of Canada, other national agencies, including the CFIA, of its findings.
While Ontario's public health system detected the listeriosis outbreak swiftly, Williams said his ministry was not able to get basic information from the CFIA on the number or location of food establishments that had received the Maple Leaf products implicated in the outbreak.
"Although the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care asked the CFIA for comprehensive information on the distribution of the products implicated in the outbreak, this information was never received," he said.
They weren't informed until mid-August — weeks after their initial alert — that contaminated meat had been distributed to restaurants, retail stores and deli counters, Williams says.
By the time the tainted meat products were recalled in Aug. 20, some had been distributed and consumed by thousands across the country, and people had already died, most of them elderly people in long-term care facilities or hospitals.
"The decision for notifying the public and recall a product is an important food safety intervention, which can prevent illness and can even save lives. Timeliness is critical . . . when an outbreak investigation is proceeding," McKeown said.
He would not say if earlier decisions by CFIA would have improved patients' health outcomes.
It was also revealed Wednesday that when Toronto Public Health wanted to send its inspectors into the Maple Leaf Foods plant on Aug. 27, the CFIA asked the local authority to send its request in writing.
The Toronto health inspector wasn't allowed inside the plant until five days later.