31 now sick: Update on E. coli O157 outbreak in Canada

It’s a Canadian press release with a compelling lede like “The Public Health Agency of Canada is collaborating with federal and provincial public health partners to investigate an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157.”

bureaucrat.pink.flyodBecause people are sick, we don’t know much, but we are collaborating.

 A specific source or product has not been identified yet, and the investigation is ongoing. The Agency will update Canadians when new information becomes available.

There have been 31 cases of E. coli with a matching genetic fingerprint reported in Alberta (1), Ontario (11), Quebec (17) and Nova Scotia (2). Individuals became sick between July 6 and September 4, 2015, with the peak of illnesses reported to date occurring between July 25 and August 1, 2015. The majority of cases (52%) were male, with an average age of 25 years. Seven cases have been hospitalized but all have recovered or are recovering.

And that’s that.

Sprouts in Europe: agencies try to make agencies look better

The first rule of public health is, make public health look good.

That’s what I was told by a senior health type after the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000 that killed seven and sickened 2,500 in a town of 5,000 (it’s in Canada).

This isn’t cynicism, it’s just something that has been repeated to me by front-line types for the past 20 years.

The European Food Safety Authority is doing some (belated) cleanup and after the E. coli O104 outbreak in sprouts last year that killed 53 and sickened 4,400.

In anything but a rapid response to a crisis, EFSA has written a report that has lots of notes about all the meetings they had, but has nothing about what they did for all those sick and dead people. Nor does it address widespread criticism at the time of the outbreak that health types were far too slow to pinpoint the source and respond.

To hammer home their role of inadequacy, EFSA published a companion piece, Risk communication: Making it clear, timely and relevant, with catchy soundbites like, “By communicating on risks in an open and transparent way based on the advice of its scientific expert panels, EFSA contributes to improving food safety in Europe and to building public confidence in the way risk is assessed. … To this end, in the last 10 years, EFSA has commissioned two Eurobarometer surveys on risk perception in the EU. The findings of the reports show that most Europeans view national and European food safety agencies as reliable sources of information on possible risks associated with food. The surveys have proved invaluable in guiding and informing EFSA’s communications.

Organizations can survey all they want to bolster their own self-opinions around the water cooler. Didn’t help contain a ridiculously large outbreak.

More complaints about New York City restaurant inspections

Crain’s New York reports that when a health-department inspector visited XES Lounge in Chelsea last month, he gave general manager Tony Juliano a ticket for having unwrapped straws on the bar. Those straws have been there for nearly eight years, but this time it was deemed a $400 violation.

A few months earlier, inspectors cited the business for a missing “No smoking” sign in the back of the bar, which has 11 employees. “We’ve been open since 2004 and were never cited for that,” said Mr. Juliano.

His frustrations echo that of many small business owners in the city, who view fines for minor offenses as punitive and feel the process for paying and contesting violations is burdensome.

In mid-October, Marisol Chino, the owner of Tepeyac Deli & Grocery on Irving Avenue in Brooklyn, was cited for having a metal food stand outside, instead of a wooden one. “They’ve been inspecting me for seven years and never told me that,” she said. “They gave me the option to pay a $200 fine or fight it, but if I lose, the fine goes to $1,000.”

A few months earlier, Ms. Chino, who is the store’s only employee, received a ticket for not having the store’s refund policy posted, even though she claims it was in the front window. When she brought that sign to the attention of the inspector, she said, he refused to change the citation.

The city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, is now getting involved after hearing from chambers of commerce, business improvement districts and small businesses at a series of roundtables he hosted earlier this year. Mr. de Blasio said businesses repeatedly mentioned the fines as among the most infuriating and time-consuming obstacles they face. His office submitted a legislative request to the City Council, the first step to introducing a bill that would allow violations from city agencies like Consumer Affairs to be contested and paid online, by mail or by phone. Fines would be differentiated more fairly between severe and low-risk violations, especially for those that don’t originate from a consumer complaint. And the bill would allow business owners with first-time, low-level citations to be given a chance to correct them before being fined.

Canada issues new listeria policy; not sure what changes

My fingerprints arrived in Ottawa (that’s in Canada) about a month ago for a travel-related security check. I know this because they signed when they received the package by courier.

I checked on the status of the paperwork a week ago and was told, in doublespeak, by writing,

“Given the information sent, the application has not reached our system at this time. Due to our quality control process, this does not mean that they are not in the building.”

Maybe all Canadian government-types go to the same communication classes, because a couple of days ago, Health Canada issued a press release about updates to its listeria control policy.

Health Canada has completed its update of the 2004 policy on Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat (RTE) foods, in view of enhancing the control of Listeria in high-risk foods. The purpose of this policy is to provide guidance to stakeholders regarding verification and control, as well as regulatory oversight and compliance activities of RTE foods with respect to their potential to support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes.

The Canadian "Policy on Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods" (hereafter referred to as the Listeria policy) is based on Good Manufacturing Practices1 (GMPs) and the principles of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point). This policy was developed using a health risk assessment (HRA) approach and uses as its foundation a combination of inspection, environmental sampling and end-product testing to verify control of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. Focus is given to environmental verification and control, especially in post-lethality areas, as applicable. This policy applies to RTE food sold in Canada, produced both domestically and imported. The present policy revises and replaces the Policy on Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods dated October 4, 2004.

How this will mean fewer sick and dead people, like the 23 who died in the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria mess, is not addressed. However the Health Canada types did say, “There is an increased focus on outreach with the federal/provincial/territorial community to increase awareness of the risks of foodborne listeriosis and to provide guidance on how to reduce the risks of acquiring listeriosis to personnel in institutions where high-risk people may be exposed.”

How this outreach will be conducted and evaluated is not discussed. No mention of labels or public availability of testing data. But read it yourself and decide.

But when I tried to read the original I had to submit a request, and received the following:

“Thank you for contacting Health Canada. Your message has been received. We will get back to you as soon as possible.”

The document eventually arrived.

Former Health Canada chief goes public after safely retiring

It’s not food safety, but it’s such an old and disappointing story that it’s worth repeating.


This time it’s the former head of Health Canada’s nutritional sciences bureau blasting the federal department Monday for failing to explain why it is approving health claims submitted by the food industry.

PepsiCo Canada had announced Monday that Health Canada has approved a new disease-reduction health claim for products containing oats. This means the company’s 11 Quaker oats products will soon carry labels on the front of their packaging trumpeting a relationship between oat fibres and reduced cholesterol.

Mary L’Abbe, the former director of Health Canada’s nutritional sciences bureau responsible for the approval of health claims, said the department now has a transparency problem because it is not releasing the evidence to support such claims.
Health Canada remains mum on the oats decision and has yet to publish evidence to support the plant sterol claim.

"With regards to transparency, I am still disappointed that the plant sterol claim was approved last May, yet the evidence to support such a claim has still not been posted — only a summary document," said L’Abbe, who left Health Canada in 2007 after 31 years.
"Health Canada’s lack of transparency in this matter is disappointing, and opposite that of the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), which has published detailed scientific reviews of the evidence that was considered in approving or denying health claims in the U.S." L’Abbe said. "Hopefully they are planning to post the evidence that supports the oats claim."

Why didn’t L’Abbe say anything about this when she was in government? I know there’s the whole oath to the Queen thing required of Canadian bureaucrats, but government is not some abstract entity, it’s run by people who chose to make decisions.

What it’s really like to work for the Canadian government

As the editor of a listserv that is distributed to thousands of people in 75 countries, I get lots of erroneous e-mail. You know, people mistakenly hit reply and send me their shopping list or something like that.

This is no mistake. And is the best I’m-away-automatic-e-mail-response I’ve ever seen. Ah, to be a bureaucrat in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

" I have finally been Paroled after 35 yrs with the Federal Government…and as such will not be accessing this email address EVER again."

Best wishes, Mr. former Canadian government employee. You have been unsubscribed from FSnet. Please feel free to sign up from home.