CFIA hubris

Jim Romahn writes on his Agri 007 blog:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues to mislead its political bosses into believing they are running one of the world’s best food safety systems.

It’s nonsense.

They have been telling agriculture ministers the same story for as long as I have been a reporter, which is almost 50 years. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.

Every time Canadian meat-packing plants undergo inspection by truly independent and well-informed people – i.e. United States and European officials – a litany of shortcomings is listed. Every time the Canadians agree with the findings and promise to fix things.

This time, in the wake of XL Foods Inc. and beef that food-poisoned people with E. coli O157:H7 and Maple Leaf Foods Inc. and processed meats that poisoned and killed Canadians with Listeria monocytogenes, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his parliamentary secretary, Pierre Lemieux, are still saying Canada has one of the best food safety inspection bureaucracies in the world.

And they are fond of saying that under their watch, more meat inspectors have been hired.

Malcolm Allen, NDP member from Welland, is not fooled. He asked great questions during third reading of the proposed legislation to consolidate and up-date food safety regulations.

He asked for whistleblower protection. The Tories ignored him. I know from reporting experience that there are conscientious meat inspectors who want the public to know the truth about flaws and failures in the system. But they are afraid of reprisals. They have no protection under the Tories who pass off the critics by saying there are protections under the criminal code.

Let them name just one meat inspection whistleblower who has been confident in that protection. I’m willing to bet that there were concerned meat inspectors at the XL Foods Inc. and Maple Leaf Foods Inc. plants, people who have been trained to spot deficiencies. They remained silent.

Allen pointed out that the CFIA has failed to conduct an adequate and professional audit of the very design of its food-safety systems. This was recommended in the report prepared about the Maple Leaf situation, a recommendation that Ritz says the CFIA implemented; Allen pointed out that he’s wrong.

Wayne Easter, who was agriculture minister for the Liberals, was ineffectual during the third-reading debate. He, too, was misled by the CFIA brass when he was agriculture minister, and he, too, said at the time that Canada has the best food-safety system in the world.

Yes, Canada has a relatively good food-safety system – on paper. But relative to the best systems in the world, and the best performance in the world, Canada isn’t even second rate.

We need, at the very least, strong whistleblower protection so Canadians can be alerted by trained, on-the-job meat inspectors about flaws and deficiencies in the system.

FDA faulted over state inspections

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is relying more often on states to inspect food plants but is failing to properly monitor those state inspections or follow through on their findings, the Department of Health and Human Services watchdog has concluded.

In a report released Wednesday, the department’s inspector general found that a lack of resources is forcing the FDA to lean more heavily on its counterparts at the state level to inspect plants responsible for everything from packing to processing foods.

More than half the agency’s inspections were done by state officials in fiscal 2009, up from 42 percent four years earlier, according to the report. If these inspections are not done properly, they can expose consumers to sometimes life-threatening illnesses.

A deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut processing plant in 2009 occurred after the plant had been inspected several times by state officials working on the FDA’s behalf.

Wednesday’s report confirms several weaknesses in that relationship, almost all of which the FDA acknowledged were indeed problems. “The report documents glitches we’re aware of. . . . These are things we are working on,” said Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.

The report found that the FDA has failed to ensure that the states have completed the number of inspections assigned to them. Of the 41 states the FDA was working with in 2009, eight did not complete 10 percent of the 2,170 inspections they were responsible for that year. The agency paid for 130 of the inspections that were not done.

The report did not specify how much was paid in those instances. But it did state that the FDA spent more than $8 million for state contract inspections in fiscal 2009.

The FDA also did not do its part in monitoring the inspections as required by law, according to the report.

When audits were conducted, the most common problem cited had to do with the state inspectors’ inability to identify violations. At least 32 percent of the 419 inspectors audited had at least one deficiency. The report cited instances in which inspectors failed to note evidence of rodents or a leaky roof above exposed food.

Even when inspectors noted food safety violations, FDA officials who reviewed the inspectors’ reports did not properly classify all of them, the report said.

Officials responsible for 11 states said they did not classify some incidents as serious and in need of official action because they thought they were not allowed to, the report said.

Officials in another 11 states said that FDA was not always notified when actions were taken and therefore could not determine if the violations were properly addressed.

FDA approach to food safety ‘wander around and hope to bump into something’

"’I refuse to buy shrimp in the U.S. We’ve inspected plants in Vietnam. Those plants are state-of-the-art. They’re certainly better than shrimp-handling in the US."

So says Roger Berkowitz, CEO of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, who insists Asian shrimp is gaining in the U.S., not because it’s cheaper but because it’s safer.

That food safety nugget was delivered in an otherwise mundane series of articles published this week by the Christian Science Monitor.

There’s also some sharp words for the two primary U.S. inspection agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is inspection-focused. US law requires it to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry that it’s responsible for, even though numerous scientific reports have questioned the effectiveness of those rapid conveyor-belt inspections.

"There is an awful lot of money being spent on guys standing around watching the chickens fly by," says Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a former official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. "It’s hard to tell what you are getting for your money."

The USDA’s costly carcass-by-carcass inspection soaks up about 60 percent of US food-safety funding, even though it covers only about 20 percent of the food Americans eat (mostly meat). That leaves the FDA with only around 40 percent of the funding, even though it’s responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply. With less funding, it’s difficult for the FDA to inspect food facilities on a regular basis.

"In my mind, [the FDA] doesn’t have an inspection system," says Scott Hurd, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University and former deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety at the USDA. "It has a ‘wander around and hope you bump into something’ " approach.

Numerous outbreaks linked to Mexican produce earlier this decade spurred the Mexican industry to clean up its image by developing various voluntary standards. For example, México Calidad Suprema is a generic brand that growers and packers commit to operate by high food-safety standards.

"Nobody ensures that" quality, says Frank Pope, who exports carrots produced in Queretaro, in central Mexico, to the US. "The market takes care of it."

Such faith in the market and voluntary efforts by the Mexican growers and packers have won over some U.S. wholesalers. "They’re working very hard to counteract that" taint, says Peter John Condakes, whose New England produce wholesale and distributing company buys more than half of its Roma tomatoes from Mexican companies. "Truthfully, in a lot of cases, the packing sheds are as strict or more strict than in the United States."