He said, she said: CFIA does/does not have different inspection criteria for domestic and exported meats

My introduction to the real food and agriculture world was driving around Ontario with Doug and Amber Bailey. In the summer of 2001, we went on a trip to Leamington, Ontario to spend some time in greenhouses where Amber was collecting wash water and tomato samples for analysis and talking to the growers about risks. These trips were part of a program that Doug, Amber and Denton Hoffman, then General Manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, had created to protect the industry.

On that trip, Denton told me that what kept him up at night was the thought of a customer in Pittsburgh or Cleveland getting sick from one of his industry’s 200+ members products.

That one incident could close the border to the hundreds of thousands of pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers that were being shipped all over the Eastern U.S.

Trade matters in food safety – but making any customer sick isn’t great business.

The XL Foods/CFIA saga continues with drama that rivals an episode of Jersey Shore. According to the Toronto Star, CTV news obtained a set of memos from 2008, 2010 and 2011 that directed  CFIA inspectors at XL Foods to focus their attention on beef that would be shipped to Japan.

The memo says, “Our number 1 priority is to ensure this standard is met with Japan eligible carcasses.Ensure that non-Japan-eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura mater, OCD (other carcass defects) and minor ingesta, Ignore them.”

CFIA has responded that the memo’s content has been taken out of context and that the memo had more to do with the division of inspection labor and who inspected for what and where.

On November 28, 2012, CTV reported on a four-year-old memo sent to inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The union, which represents inspectors, has recently alleged the memo directed inspection staff at XL Foods Inc. to perform certain tasks for meat destined for export to Japan, while ignoring food safety controls for domestic meat. This is categorically false.

This information was clarified with the union and front line inspection staff over three weeks ago when the union first brought their allegations to the CFIA’s attention. It was also explained in detail on two occasions to CTV. What the union and CTV fail to mention is that every carcass processed in Canada must meet Canada’s high food safety standards. This is required by law. There is zero tolerance for any form of contamination, and critical control points to detect problems are in place at multiple points throughout the inspection process. If at any time during inspection a potential risk to food safety is detected – regardless of the product’s destination – the line is stopped and product is held until the concern is resolved and product is in compliance.

Lost in this whole mess is the dogmatic belief that people can magically see pathogens.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.