Canadian food safety bureaucrats still aren’t that into you

If Canadian cattle or chickens get sick, the public is told all about it.

If Canadian people get sick, not so much.

That’s what I wrote in Dec. 2006 in a piece called, Sorry, bureaucrats just aren’t that into you.

I’ve said the same thing for the past month as the listeria in Canadian cold-cuts outbreak became public. The latest figures show at least 18 dead and 60 confirmed or suspected ill.

The several-week delay in telling Canadians about listeria in Maple Leaf cold-cuts, coupled with the self-congratulatory and exceedingly false statements about the superiority of Canadian disease surveillance is just another episode in the arrogant and dysfunctional father-knows-best approach to providing health advice practiced by various Canadian authorities.

Dr. Phil would say the relationship between officials at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Canadian public is like a couple headed for divorce: they don’t speak unless forced to, and when asked, it’s denial, deceit and deception.

Rob Cribb of the Toronto Star reports today that a major review of Canada’s food recall system three years ago identified serious problems that experts say continue to threaten public safety.

“Spotty inspections across the country, delays in warning the public about tainted food and a lack of follow-up to prevent repeat outbreaks are documented in the government report, obtained through access to information legislation.

The 2005 Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) review predicts concerns that have emerged from the current Maple Leaf listeria outbreak that has claimed 18 lives.

"There is no clear policy on when a recall requires public warning," the report states.

Timely public disclosure of food risks re-emerged as an issue last month when it took three weeks for officials to warn the public of tainted Maple Leaf meat. …

In the aftermath of the outbreak, public health officials and politicians were quick to reassure Canadians that the country has one of the best food safety systems in the world. But behind the scenes, the review documents a history of serious internal concerns: "Most findings in this report have previously been identified by the various parties involved in food recalls."

The CFIA audit paints a picture of a sometimes-chaotic system where turf wars can impact the public’s need to know about food warnings. …

Doug Powell, a Canadian food safety expert working at Kansas State University, said any warnings officials received from the review appear to have been ignored. "It’s contentment with mediocrity. The bureaucrats don’t seem to care very much. They all talk a good game, but they never think it will happen to them, so they just go on."

I can imagine Dr. Phil asking in his Texas drawl "How’s that working out for ya’ll?"

The most frustrating part is that CFIA is staffed with individuals who are excellent public advocates and spokespeople. On issues relating to mad cow disease or avian influenza, CFIA goes out of its way to communicate with Canadians, perhaps fearing that any crisis of confidence will reduce sales and impact Canadian farms.???

Yet when it comes to the 11 to 13 million foodborne illnesses in Canada each and every year, CFIA has adopted a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. ???Maybe Dr. Phil can get the public and CFIA into a relationship based on open communication, trust, and respect, but I doubt it. Time to move on.