Canadian food safety: there are no rules on informing the public

Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports in tomorrow’s edition that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency often finds problems with bottled water, but doesn’t tell the public about them.

CFIA food safety and recall specialist Garfield Balsom said there are no hard-and-fast rules on what requires public notification.

“There is nothing indicating what is to be made public or what’s not.”

The way the story is written, it’s difficult to tell whether this rather explosive quote refers to just bottled water or all food safety issues. The story does explain that an Access to Information Act request was required to determine CFIA issued 29 recall notices for bottled water products between 2000 and early 2008, but issued a public warning in only seven cases, two of which came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made public its recall orders.

Balsom said that other countries follow the same approach and don’t automatically issue notices because consumers would soon be overwhelmed by publicity over recalls, most of which would pose low risks.

“There are downsides to publicizing everything.”

True. But based on past case studies, people hate it when government-types are inconsistent or bureaucratic or less than forthcoming.

The agency has an internal hazard ranking system, known as class one, class two and class three, for products that respectively pose high, moderate and low risk. … But the access records show that there was no consistency in the agency’s approach. There were cases of the same bacteria and same hazard ratings being treated differently, with some having public recalls and others not.

This is a persistent problem – when to go public. Suspicions remain that CFIA and Maple Leaf Foods were slow in responding to last year’s listeria shitstorm that killed at least 21 – and a public offering of who knew what when is still missing.

Same with the Salmonella in tomatoes and jalapenos last summer in the U.S. Many were frustrated by conflicting messages and finger-pointing. Same with cyclosproa in the U.S. in Canada in 1996, in which California strawberries were erroneously fingered when it was the Guatemalan raspberries.

Epidemiology, like humans, is flawed. But it’s better than astrology. The more that public health folks can articulate when to go public and why, the more confidence in the system. Past risk communication research has demonstrated that if people have confidence in the decision-making process they will have more confidence in the decision. People may not agree about when to go public, but if the assumptions are laid on the table, and value judgments are acknowledged, then maybe the focus can be on fewer sick people.