Public Values

Why are food producers still their own health inspectors?

US audit of Canadian meat plants reveals serious breaches; listeriosis investigator gagged by PM.

Bob Kingstonby Bob Kingston

A new outbreak of food-borne illness — from salmonella contaminated peanuts produced in the US — is killing Americans and may be making Canadians sick.

The American producer of the poison peanuts has something in common with the Canadian company whose contaminated cold cuts killed 20 people this summer. Neither was required to report to food safety inspectors when a test showed contamination in their plants and product.

This fact will come as a surprise to many Canadians who remain mostly in the dark about the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak. And it seems the prime minister would like to keep it that way.

Mr. Harper has gagged the person he just appointed to investigate last summer's killer listeriosis outbreak, forbidding her to speak to the media or the public, while denying her important tools she needs to get to the bottom of the problem.

This is entirely consistent with Ottawa's decision to kill reports the government once published that made detailed information about safety and sanitation practices at Canadian meat plants available to Canadian consumers.

Meat industry lobbyists will be happy with this approach but it denies Canadians the information they want and need.

What is being kept from consumers? A recently released audit of Canada's meat inspection system conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture provides the answer, as if we needed one following the tragic events of the summer.

Conducted only weeks before the listeriosis outbreak, the audit found that a Maple Leaf Foods meat processing facility in Laval, Que., was not ensuring proper cleaning and sanitation at the plant.

The US audit should have foreshadowed the sanitation problems that led to this summer's listeriosis tragedy and triggered a broader investigation. But the sad fact is the level of resources at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not allow for that type of response. During onsite visits to a number of meat processing and slaughter plants in Canada, the American auditors found many breeches of safety regulations at various locations. Their report is graphic: "the outside surfaces of employee's work boots. . . were coated with residues of product from the previous day's production. . .

"During pre-operational sanitation inspection the following were observed. . . a tuft of hair on the support for the carcass skinning rail, blood and residue on the tension adjustment knob for the employee safety wire, and surplus pipes filled with blood and dirt on the floor. . . the establishment did not have a personnel training procedure for the reconditioning of veal carcasses that had fallen onto the slaughter room floor."

We owe our friends at the USDA a debt of gratitude. They publish the only detailed information about safety and sanitation practices at Canadian meat plants that's available to Canadian consumers.

Canada's retreat from transparency is troubling, especially in light of Ottawa's decision to shift greater safety self-policing powers to the food industry while diminishing resources for government inspection at the same time.

It is bad public policy to simultaneously kill public access to information and cut back on inspection and oversight. Yet that is what Ottawa has done in the case of the processed meat industry.

Ottawa has shifted to industry self-policing of food safety. This shift culminated on March 31 for the meat processing industry. As a result, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) processed meat inspectors now devote only a fraction of their day to direct supervision of processing plant operations. The rest of their time is spent reviewing company generated reports which, according to the USDA audit, are deficient in more than half the processing plants auditors visited.

Why is this happening?

Processed meat inspectors on average have about four facilities to inspect. This is twice the workload any inspector can reasonably handle while making sure safety regulations are followed. Each inspector should have two or three plants instead of four or more. Leading up to the listeriosis crisis, the inspector responsible for Maple Leaf's tainted Toronto plant also was responsible for six other facilities.

While you can't see bacteria with the naked eye, you can see conditions in processing plants that lead to contaminated food. That's why it's so important to have inspectors on the plant floor of the processing plants to detect unsanitary conditions and other signs of trouble.

The US audit this year revealed some serious problems, especially when it comes to the enforcement of Canadian safety regulations.

In spite of the fact that these were not surprise audits, the Americans found the vast majority (20 of 25) of meat processing plants they visited had some safety requirements that were not adequately enforced. For example, almost 80 percent of the facilities visited did not implement, document or evaluate standard operating procedures for sanitation — a basic requirement that must be followed according to Canadian safety regulations. Indeed, the auditors witnessed actual sanitary deficiencies at one-third of the plants they visited.

An investigation into the listeriosis tragedy conducted under a media blackout and without the powers needed to get to the bottom of this crisis is consistent with the veil of secrecy demanded by the meat industry and apparently the prime minister.

But it's unlikely to provide Canadian consumers with the answers and assurances they're looking for.

Bob Kingston is a CFIA inspection supervisor on leave to act as National President of the Agriculture Union — PSAC, sponsor of www.foodsafetyfirst.ca

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Industry can police itself / No government inspections — people are dead
  Healthy product equals healthy company / Relying on enlightened self-interest risks lives

Links and sources
  www.foodsafetyfirst.ca

Posted: February 10, 2009

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