Canadian food safety bureaucrats continue to stumble — and more people are sick

I started FSnet, the food safety news, shortly after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in Jan. 1993. Sure, Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet, but those of us in universities had access, and I started distributing food safety stories.

It all seems sorta quaint now, what with Google alerts and blogs and RSS feeds, but my goal was straightforward: during the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, a number of spokesthingies said, they didn’t know E. coli O157:H7 was a risk, they didn’t know that Washington State had raised its recommended final cooking temperature for ground beef, they didn’t know what was going on.

So FSnet was conceived and made widely available so that no one could legitimately say, they didn’t know.

Yet that’s exactly what federal bureaucrats in Canada said last night when questioned about the delay in warning those in southwestern Ontario that lettuce from Aunt Mid’s in Detroit, implicated in a large Michigan-based E. coli O57:H7 outbreak that has stricken at least 34, had made its way across the border.

And now at least two people in Ontario have tested positive for the same strain of E. coli O57:H7.

David Musyj, president and chief executive officer of the Windsor (Ontario) Regional Hospital, said last night that authorities in Michigan issued a public-health alert about the link to Aunt Mid’s iceberg on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency didn’t bother notifying Windsor health officials until Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008.

"What happened between Sept. 26 and Oct. 1? Clearly there is a communication gap that occurred. I want an investigation to be launched into this to find out why there was a communication gap, whether it was our CFIA or whether it was the State of Michigan."

Dustin Pike, a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, said in an e-mail yesterday that the Public Health Agency of Canada notified the CFIA of the E. coli outbreak in Michigan potentially linked to the lettuce on Tuesday, and after determining that the product had been imported into Canada, the CFIA contacted Windsor health authorities the following morning. …

Davendra Sharma, a food-safety recall specialist at the CFIA, said the agency acted promptly when it heard of the outbreak to identify who in Canada purchased the product and to notify Windsor officials.

Again, I started FSnet all those years ago so bureaucrats and others couldn’t say, I didn’t know.

The Michigan outbreak was first publicly reported on Sept. 16, 2008. Lettuce was identified as the primary suspect on Friday, Sept. 26 2008. Why it took until Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008 for someone at Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to notice there was an outbreak next door in product that could be shipped to Canada is baffling.

Especially because of all the bureaucrats that read FSnet. According to tonight’s numbers, 27 people at PHAC, 149 people at Health Canada, and 316 people at CFIA receive FSnet. That’s almost 500 people, and no one noticed?

Tonight, test results have, unfortunately, revealed that two cases of E. coli O157:H7 in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, are of the same strain identified in 38 cases in the United States. All of the cases are thought to be linked to shredded iceberg lettuce distributed by Aunt Mid’s Produce Company. This product is distributed in five pound industrial bags to institutions such as hospitals and long-term care homes, as well as restaurants in southwestern Ontario.

Musyj of the Windsor hospital captures the failings of CFIA when he says:

"Once something is thought of seriously enough to raise a red flag, then you better call everyone affected by the red flag. You can’t wait for a death to happen to notify everyone."

Although that seems to have been the CFIA policy with listeria: with 20 dead and counting, it’s a bad policy.

CFIA, what is your policy on going public with information that can prevent illness? Is your primary priority to protect public health? If so, can you provide evidence to back such a claim? 

And how can any of you say you didn’t know?

Oh, and for those who see salvation in a single food inspection agency, as is often discussed in the U.S., please notice the dysfunctional mess that is CFIA.