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.

Is it grumpiness with age or has mediocrity won PR (or both)

My friend Jim Romahn has been reporting on agriculture in Canada since federal Ag Minister Eugene Whelan started wearing green Stetsons.

Jim used to write speeches for Gene.

And he’s getting snarkier.

I know the feeling.

Jim writes the U.S. Department of Agriculture is adopting a new multi-testing system for meat that will make it much more difficult to sneak illegal residues into the country.

But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is, once again, lagging behind.

When I asked if the CFIA is aware of the U.S. change and whether it’s doing anything similar, I got a nifty dissembling spin-doctored response.

Yes, the CFIA said, it’s aware of the U.S. move.

Yes, it said, it tests meat, poultry and eggs for more than 300 chemicals.

And yes, it is using a multi-residue test.

However, that multi-residue test is limited to about 30 antibiotics. That’s nowhere close to what the U.S. is now doing.

The single-sample testing the U.S. is implementing is for antibiotics, metals and growth promotants.

In the past, meat could sneak by if the sample was tested for one chemical or for one type of residue, such as antimicrobials. Not now.

When it comes to food safety and integrity, the CFIA just says Canada has the highest standards in the world, and one of the best inspection systems in the world. It’s just hot air, folks.

Why the Internet still needs reporters who ask the right questions

If it wasn’t for my friend and journalist, Jim Romahn (right, exactly as shown), I probably would have stopped the food safety gig 10 years ago and went off to play bad banjo in a bluegrass band, or bad goalie in a 15th tier semi-pro hockey league, or become a greeter at Wal-Mart.

By about 1999, I’d gotten bored of hearing myself talk. There’s lots of prof types who make careers out of recycling, but after publishing a book, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, and going on the academic circuit, I was really bored with myself.

Jim, who’s been the premier agriculture and food reporter in Canada for about as long as I’ve been alive and used to write speeches for Canadian Minister of Agriculture, Eugene Whelan (the dude in the green Stetson), gave me some advice:

“’Gene used to tell me, when you’ve been on every radio station, when you’ve talked to every local ag meeting, when you can’t stand to hear yourself say the same thing again, that’s when people are just starting to listen. So get over yourself.”

Or that’s about as close as I remember the tale. And it’s one reason why I still do food safety stuff.

Jim sent me a story that ran yesterday, that beautifully demonstrates why the Internet still needs real investigative journalists to provide analysis, rather than just stick their names on press releases: the later is not journalism, it’s promotion and redistribution using electronic toys.

Jim reported that,

“Canada’s reputation for dairy genetics has taken a huge hit because of the massive fraud perpetrated by trusted veterinarian Dr. Brian Hill and his Maple Hill Embryos Inc. of Woodstock, Ont.

He shipped more than six thousand embryos each to China and Russia under false documentation, and more thousands to the Ukraine and Cyprus.

He took embryos from scores of Ontario’s leading Holstein and Jersey breeders, but the lawyers involved in the case decided they couldn’t easily prove theft.

They could prove massive fraud. In some cases, Hill falsified the breeding slips for artificial insemination, the identity of the dam, the breeding date and the embryo recovery date and health certificates.

Some of these frauds were so blatant that a novice ought to have noticed, such as embryo recoveries from one donor cow two weeks apart and recoveries of 18 embryos per collection when the average is seven.

The Chinese set high standards for what they wanted to buy from Hill. In fact, he identified only six cows that qualified, yet shipped them more than 6,000 embryos all collected within a year.

It’s one thing for Hill to cheat this way.

It’s another for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to be so asleep at the switch that it never noticed.

Its veterinarians signed the paperwork clearing the embryo exports. Its veterinarians failed to notice collection dates two weeks apart for the same donor cow. Its veterinarians failed to notice Hill apparently collected more than 6,000 embryos from six cows within less than a year.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is supposed to audit registered embryo collection centres. Hill had one of those, yet the property owner said he never saw Hill, let alone government inspectors, at the place."

Audits really don’t mean much, for food safety, or cattle sperm. Thanks, Jim, for helping me get over myself, and moving on.

Bert Mitchell: Canadian listeria controls lacking

Bert Mitchell saw jim Romahn’s Dec. 22/08 piece about listeria and Maple Leaf Foods in FSnet and, and decided he had to write.

Dr. Mitchell’s no lightweight. Among other achievements, he was Director of the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs at Health Canada from 1982-1988,an associate director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine from 1988-2001, and the current president of the American Association of Retired Veterinarians.

Bert says:

I want to congratulate and encourage Jim Romahn for his article Maple Leaf, Michael McCain, and Unanswered Questions. I read his article on the FSnet list serve webpage. I do not claim to be an expert in the microbiology of Listeria or manufacturing procedures to avoid it but I do want to encourage Jim, and others in his profession, because the picture of cause and control in this Maple Leaf case is incomplete.

While Michael McCain seems to be gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Listeria contamination in the Maple Leaf plant, I think it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.

Jim is on-point in arguing for better health protection in Canada. He is helping expose a glaring lack of complete information that should be readily available from Health Canada, CFIA, or Maple Leaf Foods about the source and spread of the Listeria found in sliced meat cold cuts that killed 20 Canadians and sickened many others. Specifically, he is spotlighting the continuing lack of the better labeling and improved manufacturing procedures needed to protect elderly, immune weakened, and pregnant persons. This example of poor health protection in Canada has been seen before. Listeriosis in people has occurred previously in Canada and because of regulatory inaction, it can happen again.

Listeria in cold cuts is a health threat that continues to exist in Canada. The recent hype from Maple Leaf in advertising the end of Listeria risk is just talk without support. If the company or the federal bureaucracy have evidence that labeling and manufacturing procedure changes are unnecessary, they should publish the evidence for the public to see.

As a result of inadequate labeling/manufacturing regulations, inadequate enforcement, and excessive collegiality between the federal bureaucrat and the industry it regulates, the Listeria public health threat continues to exist in Canada. About 10 years ago, the U.S. found Listeria in wieners. They changed labeling and required a post packaging cooking step. These changes appear to be the reason for no Listeria in U.S. cold cuts. For these 10 years, an apparently effective regulatory example has been on paper and worked effectively in practice to prevent Listeria in cold cuts in the U.S. The evidence of need for better Canadian labeling and manufacturing procedures for cold cuts seems obvious. What am I missing in this seemingly black-white image?

Investigative journalism is an important factor in uncovering the stinking wet spots that can exist within big bureaucracies and industries. Investigative reporting is particularly important in instances in which the public is indifferent to the issue or prefers to believe that the government can be trusted to always do what is right. Everyone has a responsibility to be vigilant about government action and inaction.

The investigative journalist reviews the evidence, thinks about alternatives, asks questions, and writes articles. In this case they write articles about why Canadians have died unnecessarily. Investigative journalism is a critically important element in effecting change. Jim Romahn has the right line of questions. He deserves nomination for yet another journalistic award.

In Canada, the labeling and manufacturing controls needed to control Listeria in cold cuts are not in place. Just as Canadians experienced no outbreak of Listeria for a decade, there may be none for years to come. What we do know is that the 2008 Listeria outbreak in Canada has not motivated sufficient change to prevent another outbreak and more unnecessary deaths. It is this flaw that Jim Romahn is addressing and the investigation I applaud.

Jim Romahn: It’s time for general Canadian public to speak up

I’ve know Jim Romahn for about 15 years. His writing drives a lot of bureaucrats ballistic, which is why he’s recognized as one of Canada’s best journalists writing about food and agriculture.

Jim just sent me this column about food, protectionism and hypocrisy. The South Koreans went somewhat nuts about American beef earlier this year, with riot police called to quell the protests of tens of thousands.

Six months later and the Washington Post reported, what was the big deal?

“Low-priced U.S. beef has appeared in supermarkets here in recent days, after a decision by three major retailers to start selling it again, and the reaction has been brisk business and no political fuss. Fifty tons of U.S. beef disappeared from shelves the first day it was offered for sale."

That’s usually the way things work. Politicians worried about particular constituencies will make outrageous claims on behalf of all Canadians or Koreans or consumers in general, in the absence of any data. Yet when people are allowed to vote at the grocery store, with their wallet, conventional wisdom becomes political nonsense.

So here’s Jim’s take on Canada, South Korea, trade and BS.

Pity the beef and pork producers eager to increase exports to South Korea.

Trade talks have been dragging on for years.

For sure, the beef and hog producers of South Korea oppose dropping tariffs on Canadian products.

But there’s also a big problem in our own back yard.

The Koreans want to sell us cars, but Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are lobbying hard to maintain the 6.1 per cent tariff. So is the Canadian Autoworkers Union.

There is another big problem – our dairy industry.

The trade talks have expanded to bring in other countries to make a deal more attractive, especially to increase exports.

So far those talks involve Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand.

New Zealand wants to export its dairy products. And everybody knows Canadian dairy farmers won’t budge one iota.

So, after 13 rounds of negotiations with South Korea, and a few with the so-called P4, Canada’s special interests are blocking trade deals that would quite obviously benefit beef and hog farmers and all Canadian consumers.

It’s one thing to stonewall at the World Trade negotiations. It’s even more upsetting when our politicians stonewall on country-specific negotiations, and this P4 group of minor countries.

What are the chances our politicians will agree to trade terms that will increase competitive pressure on our auto industry?

What are the chances they will undermine supply management for the dairy and poultry farmers?

What hope, then, that Canadians will be able to heed the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he says the current economic crisis calls for free trade.

Harper reminds world leaders that protectionism gets blamed for some of the depth of the Great Depression.

It’s not world leaders who need a lecture. It’s our own Canadian protectionists.

What’s more, Harper has the tools to back his talk with action.

 If he could make a deal with the P4, it would set the stage for him to take a far more aggressive position in the World Trade negotiations.

 And there the goal from the beginning of the Doha round has been to benefit poor nations. And among the poorest people in those nations are farmers.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture and a series of agriculture ministers have pretended we can take a “balanced” position in trade negotiations, winning market access for our exporters and continued protection for the marketing boards.

It’s obviously not true.

The Doha round talks have repeatedly stalled. Thirteen rounds of negotiations with South Korea have failed to yield a deal. And Canada is unlikely to stay at the negotiating table with the P4 because it won’t compromise with New Zealand.

It’s time for the general Canadian public to speak up and demand an end to political pandering to special interests. We can’t afford to waste our money and resources, especially as the rest of the world moves to capture the benefits of freer trade.