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Canada charts progress in wake of fatal Listeria outbreak

By Rory Harrington , 26-Oct-2010

Canadian food safety officials said “considerable progress” has been made in overhauling the country’s food safety systems in the wake of the Maple Leaf Listeria outbreak that killed 23 in 2008.

A C$13m cash injection to fund more inspectors, updating of manuals, speeding up regulatory approvals for new additives and the piloting of new technology are all measures that are being undertaken, said the Canadian Food Inspections Agency (CFIA).

The body’s interim report came in response to the independent investigation into of Canada’s food safety system published by Sheila Weatherill in July 2009. The hard-hitting analysis laid bare a raft of systemic failures in the country’s safety Canada’s food safety structure and set out 57 recommendations to tackle them.

Last year, the Canadian Government confirmed it would adopt all the proposals in the report and has now outlined the its progress in meeting them.

Inspection, Listeria and additive approvals

The CFIA said it is on the way to providing the 260 inspectors required to ensure industry compliance in meat processing plants. In 2009, the Government provided funding for 70 new inspectors to augment the work of the 176 personnel, with a further 100 posts to be filled in 2010.

It confirmed that C$13m extra had been made available to boost inspection capacity.

Measures have also been taken to update Canada’s Listeria policy, with Health Canada expected to publish the final guidelines in the near future.

The health agency has also made progress in hastening the approval process for additives that can curb the growth of Listeria monocytogenes - in line with one of the Weatherill recommendations. A pre-market submission project from Health Canada is already reducing approval times and the agency is developing guidelines to help industry identify which food safety proposals best meet these. The guidance is expected to be made public by the end of this year.

Updating manuals

The CFIA said all its manuals had been updated after the Weatherill report identified out-of-date guidance for inspectors as a cause of the 2008 contamination problems. It also added it was exploring new technology – such as wireless networks – to allow staff in remote areas to stay connected and improve communication amongst agencies.

Introduction of novel detection technologies and the implementation of a national network of laboratories to speed up analysis times and provide a consistent service across the country were also seen as vital. The Government said it is “strengthening national surveillance and early detection” systems, such as the Canadian Integrated Outbreak Surveillance Center (CIOSC), PulseNet Canada and a committee dedicated to establishing the national network.

The Government recognised that “there is always more work to be done” and vowed to work with partners to manage the food safety risks. Its final report will be published in September 2011.

Industry response

Maple Leaf’s food safety chief, Dr Randy Huffman broadly welcomed the progress report, declaring the extra inspection cash to be “key”, as well as recognising the work underway to provide a national surveillance and analysis network.

But he echoed the Government’s own assessment that there was still more to do, particularly on finalising the policy on Listeria prevention and ensuring Canada had the necessary detection technology in place.

“It’s important for Canadian companies to have approval to use the range of food safety tools that are being used elsewhere, notably in the US, so that our systems are robust and complementary to regulatory requirements,” said Dr Huffman.

He said the company was also anxious that authorities provide ongoing reporting of industry compliance to improve accountability.

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