Canadian Food Inspection Agency can communicate about risk – at least when Evans is involved

In 1997, I co-wrote a book called Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk: The Perils of Poor Risk Communication. It was stuff I had done during my PhD research, combined with some stuff put together by William Leiss, who was my external examiner.

When counseling future PhDs, I still recall, how after successfully defending my PhD, driving back to campus after a celebratory lunch during which I ate nothing – Linda Harris, you remember – I had to ask Bill and my supervisor, Mansel Griffiths, to pull over while going up the Gordon Street hill so I could vomit.

I hurled again as we arrived in the parking lot outside the food science building.

It may have been stress. It may have been a comment on Guelph.

Anyway, we wrote this book, it got decent reviews, and then a few years ago, Bill asked if I wanted to publish a second edition.

I said no.

My explanation was, been there, done that, armchair quarterbacking through retrospective case studies was interesting as a student, but I was on the frontlines, throwing out risk messages and taking arrows. I quoted a Neil Young line about how I’ve been on the road and I’ve been in the ditch and the ditch is more interesting.

He didn’t respond.

But he did publish a second edition, in which his name was first. Males are always compensating for something.

I had nothing to do with the second edition. Although I did e-mail Bill after Canada’s first homegrown case of mad cow disease was discovered in May 2003. He had become publicly vocal about failures of the Canadian regulators, so I asked him, why weren’t you that vocal when we were writing a book, with Mad Cows in the title, back in 1996.

He said I had bad manners and wouldn’t talk to me until I improved my manners, the manners that children learn from their mothers.

Guess I haven’t learned.

But if I’m going to briefly resume the armchair quarterback position, kudos to Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Evans, executive vice president, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and chief veterinary officer for Canada, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday that,

“The health and safety of Canadians is, and will always remain, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s highest priority.

In 2007, the CFIA undertook a strategic review to ensure our resources are allocated to where there is the greatest need to ensure the health and safety of Canadians and to provide the best value for taxpayers.

There was no five-per-cent reduction in funding for the CFIA as a result of this exercise. The savings identified in the review were redirected to food safety to support Canada’s Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan.

The 2008 budget allocated more than $113 million for this action plan which will result in more inspectors and increased surveillance of domestic and imported foods. We continue to modernize our system to better protect Canadians, enhance the safety and reliability of consumer, food, and health products, and ensure we maintain one of the most stringent safety systems in the world.
We are continually modernizing and improving our inspection systems to meet the challenges of a changing environment whether it is emerging food safety risks or changes to technology or the marketplace.

There has been no reduction of inspectors. In fact, the number has risen to 3,020 by March 2008 from 2,820 in 2006. The number of inspectors will continue to grow under that food and consumer safety action plan.

As always, before any changes are phased in, CFIA will consult with stakeholders on the implementation of program changes. Any proposal that would change our regulatory system would be based on international standards to provide the highest level of trust of Canadians and our trading partners.

Any changes to the federal inspection system will always include strong enforcement and compliance action by the CFIA to make sure industry meets the requirement to produce safe food. Food safety is and always will be the CFIA’s top priority.

I’ve complemented Evans before, in a paper that was published last year.

While risk analysis theory is fundamentally important, how such theory is put into action during actual outbreaks of foodborne illness or crises of confidence can be instructive and better elucidate the importance of individual components. For example, on May 20, 2003, Canada publicly announced its first home-grown case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease). But, unlike every other country that has discovered BSE, consumption of beef actually increased. While price discounts, advertising, and promotional statements from various social actors about the safety of Canadian beef probably contributed to the sales increase, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was completely transparent, publicly showcasing — in the form of daily press conferences lead by Canada’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Brian Evans — a vigilant, proactive regulatory system, while acknowledging the likelihood that the disease was not limited to just one animal. In essence, Dr. Evans and his team provided daily updates that said, this is what we know, this is what we don’t know, and this is what we’re doing to find out more. And when we find out more, you will hear it from us first. Transparency, along with efforts to demonstrable that actions match words, is the best way to enhance consumer confidence.

Being on the frontlines is far more interesting than academic babble.