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Canadians' food supply unsafe, CMAJ report says

Canada's food-safety system is broken, despite a massive independent investigation launched by the federal government in the wake of a deadly listeriosis outbreak, warns a new analysis in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

And Canadian lives continue to be put at risk by an inadequate system, said the author of the report, Rick Holley, professor of food safety and food microbiology in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba.

"If politicians want to stand up and say we have the safest food supply in the world, they've got to come clean and do something to make it that way, because right now it's certainly not," Prof. Holley said in an interview.

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The federal government launched an independent investigation after a major outbreak of listeriosis linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in 2008 killed 22 Canadians and caused many illnesses. It wrapped up last summer with dozens of recommendations that the government has pledged to adopt, such as requiring manufacturers to inform authorities of potential health threats and beefing up emergency preparedness.

Various government departments have also issued reports on the listeriosis outbreak, and a Parliamentary committee has studied the issue and issued two reports.

But the problem is the investigations asked the wrong questions, Prof. Holley said. Officials looked only at the systems in place and how they could be improved, instead of examining the foundation of Canada's food-safety system and asking whether it works.

"They were directed toward determining who was doing things right and we should have really been asking, 'Are we doing the right things?' " Prof. Holley said.

For example, the report from the independent inquiry focused on improvements to meat plant inspections instead of the need to identify trends in food-borne illness before an outbreak occurs, Prof. Holley said.

One of the biggest weaknesses Prof. Holley identified is Canada's inadequate surveillance of food-borne illness. Although the government tracks reported cases of food- and water-borne illnesses, the data is basically collected in a large file folder - it's there, but it's difficult to make much sense of it, Prof. Holley said.

"There is no intelligent compilation of that data into a form that will allow us to draw conclusions about what kinds of foods are more risky than others and what organisms are more important," he said.

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It's a key problem because the lack of surveillance means health officials are always in the position of reacting to an outbreak, rather than identifying potential problems in advance by monitoring cases that pop up across the country, Prof. Holley said. The problem is compounded by the fact that each province is in charge of food surveillance, which has created a fragmented system.

Sheila Weatherill, who led the government's independent investigation, declined a request for comment.

However, in an article recently published in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's magazine, Liaison, the agency's vice-president said the country is embarking on a new era in food safety as globalization, an aging population and rising food allergies, among other issues, create new challenges.

"We must constantly strive to improve our ability to manage risks at all stages of food production and distribution, prevent problems before they arise, and respond quickly when problems occur," wrote Brian Evans. "These are the expectations that society has of us and they are the expectations that we must have of ourselves."

But Michael McBane, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition, said the design of the independent investigation highlights deep flaws in the government's approach to the issue. The inquiry was conducted almost entirely in private and seemed to have an extremely narrow, restrictive focus, he said.

"It's giving the public false assurances," Mr. McBane said.

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He said he believes Canada's food-safety system has eroded in the past few years as services were deregulated and safety officials moved toward reacting rather than proactively identifying issues.

"I think we've gone down a really dangerous route," Mr. McBane said. "We've replaced a culture of safety with a culture of risk. We've replaced proactive regulation with industrial self-regulation. We've replaced active inspections with paper inspections."

Prof. Holley said that countries that have invested in advanced surveillance systems, such as Denmark, are able to track cases of food-borne illness and the foods they're associated with, allowing them to approach manufacturers to make improvements before a full-blown outbreak occurs.

But food surveillance is a complicated science that would require a significant amount of field work to collect samples from peoples' homes as well as an expensive new computer system, Prof. Holley said. The government has to be willing to make the investment needed in order for any real improvements to be made, he said.

"I don't want them to spend another penny on food safety in Canada until we figure out what it is that's making us sick so they can manage it properly," Prof. Holley said. "Otherwise, it's a big waste of money and we can't afford that."

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