How to have fewer people barfing from food? Inspections and government are only one tool

It’s an easy story for beleaguered journalists: a belligerent government versus a belligerent union, with both making wild claims about food safety.

Lost in the rhetoric is any concern about the people who eat – pretty much all of us – and the people who barf.

The union representing federal food inspectors says Canada’s food safety system is being pushed beyond its limits.

restaurant.inspectionSome $35-million and 192 inspectors are on the food safety program’s chopping block over the next two years, according to online documents posted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The agency has also disbanded a team of inspectors dedicated to protecting consumers from food fraud throughout Metro Vancouver. The Consumer Protection Unit once boasted 11 inspectors, but that number dwindled to four due to attrition.

The federal health ministry referred questions to the CFIA, which responded to the union’s claims with a broad e-mail.

“The statements by the union are false. There have been no cuts to food safety. Canada has one of the safest and healthiest food systems in the world,” it said.

The agency acknowledged there have been recent changes to how it handles the Vancouver area.

Time to change the discussion and the approach to safe food. Time to lose the religion: audits and inspections are never enough.

• Food safety audits and inspections are a key component of the nation’s food safety system and their use will expand in the future, for both domestic and imported foodstuffs., but recent failures can be emotionally, physically and financially devastating to the victims and the businesses involved;

• many outbreaks involve firms that have had their food production systems verified and received acceptable ratings from food safety auditors or government inspectors;

• while inspectors and auditors play an active role in overseeing compliance, the burden for food safety lies primarily with food producers;

• there are lots of limitations with audits and inspections, just like with restaurants inspections, but with an estimated 48 million sick each year in the U.S., the question should be, how best to improve food safety?

• audit reports are only useful if the purchaser or  food producer reviews the results, understands the risks addressed by the standards and makes risk-reduction decisions based on the results;

• there appears to be a disconnect between what auditors provide (a snapshot) and what buyers believe they are doing (a full verification or certification of product and process);

• third-party audits are only one performance indicator and need to be supplemented with microbial testing, second-party audits of suppliers and the in-house capacity to meaningfully assess the results of audits and inspections;

• companies who blame the auditor or inspector for outbreaks of foodborne illness should also blame themselves;

• assessing food-handling practices of staff through internal observations, externally-led evaluations, and audit and inspection results can provide indicators of a food safety culture; and,

• the use of audits to help create, improve, and maintain a genuine food safety culture holds the most promise in preventing foodborne illness and safeguarding public health.

 

Audits and inspections are never enough: A critique to enhance food safety

30.aug.12

Food Control

D.A. Powell, S. Erdozain, C. Dodd, R. Costa, K. Morley, B.J. Chapman

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956713512004409?v=s5

Abstract

Internal and external food safety audits are conducted to assess the safety and quality of food including on-farm production, manufacturing practices, sanitation, and hygiene. Some auditors are direct stakeholders that are employed by food establishments to conduct internal audits, while other auditors may represent the interests of a second-party purchaser or a third-party auditing agency. Some buyers conduct their own audits or additional testing, while some buyers trust the results of third-party audits or inspections. Third-party auditors, however, use various food safety audit standards and most do not have a vested interest in the products being sold. Audits are conducted under a proprietary standard, while food safety inspections are generally conducted within a legal framework. There have been many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food processors that have passed third-party audits and inspections, raising questions about the utility of both. Supporters argue third-party audits are a way to ensure food safety in an era of dwindling economic resources. Critics contend that while external audits and inspections can be a valuable tool to help ensure safe food, such activities represent only a snapshot in time. This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.

21 sick, 1 dead from E. coli O157 linked to Gort’s cheese in Canada last year; source not known

Seven months after their world was shaken, the owners of Gort’s Gouda cheese farm are still working to get their business back on solid ground.

“It’s been a tough haul. We’re working hard at rebounding, it’s looking positive. It’s going to be a long haul, but that’s okay,” said Kathy Wikkerink, who owns the farm with her spouse Gary.

gorts.cheese.O157In February, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a report on its food safety investigation at the farm. It was initiated on Sept. 14, 2013 following a cluster of E.coli 0157:H7 illnesses that were believed to be related to consumption of cheese products from Gort’s.

Twenty-one people were eventually reported with E.coli-related illness and recovered, while one woman died.

Pinpointing the contamination couldn’t be done.

“Despite extensive efforts, the CFIA concluded that there was no evidence available to confirm the source of the E. coli O157:H7 contamination,” states the report.

“The CFIA identified areas for improvements at the processing facility and requested Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm to submit a corrective action plan. The company was requested to make enhancements in sanitation practices, equipment design and building maintenance.”

It adds that, “all food safety concerns identified during the investigation have been corrected. Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm corrected other administrative and non-food safety related issues within accepted time frames.”

Kathy says the bulk of the requirements for the business involved paper work, “bigger paper trails.”

Under “root cause analysis,” the report points to raw milk cheese products.

“Overall evidence indicated that there were a number of opportunities for contamination to occur in the earlier stages of the raw milk cheese manufacturing process.

“The potential for contamination during cutting, handling and packaging was also found to be a possible risk factor.”

CFIA plays the 99 per cent numbers game

CFIA is getting into the 99 per cent game, usually reserved for hucksters on TV.

99.9 per cent sounds good, but that’s only a 3-log reduction. For food safety purposes, log-5 (99.999 per cent) to log-7 (99.99999 per cent) reductions in dangerous pathogens are often strived for.

Last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that 99.8 per cent of whole cantaloupe samples tested negative for the presence of Salmonella (they didn’t test for Listeria, but should have).

cantaloupe.salmonellaPlaying the 99 per cent game is also terrible risk communication: it doesn’t matter how small the percentage of positive samples were if you were one of the 23 people that dies from Listeria in Maple Leaf cold-cuts in 2008.

Data and sampling are a necessary evil and I’m glad CFIA is making the results public. But testing is limited and fraught with caveats. It’s expensive, and industry has lots of data, so why not make it public, in the context of an overall approach to food safety for a specific food.

CFIA reports  a total of 499 whole cantaloupe samples were collected and tested for Salmonella bacteria, which can cause a serious illness with long-lasting effects. One sample was found to be unsatisfactory due to the presence of Salmonella.

A week later, CFIA said more than 99.9 per cent of leafy green vegetable samples had no detectable levels of bacterial pathogens and were safe to consume.

As part of a five-year microbiological plan that began in 2008/2009, the CFIA analyzed a total of 4,250 domestic and imported, whole and fresh-cut fresh leafy vegetable samples available in the Canadian market for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, E. coli O157:NM and generic E. coli. The fresh-cut samples were also tested for Listeria monocytogenes.

The 2009/2010 study deemed 12 samples to be “unsatisfactory” due to the presence of Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and/or high levels of generic E. coli. None of the samples were found to be positive for E. coli O157:H7 or E. coli O157:NM.

Evans of CFIA gets honorary degree

Dr. Brian Evans, former chief vet at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the point-man on the first mad cow disease outbreak in 2003, is the first recipient of an honorary degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Calgary.

Evans is the retired executive vice-president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and was the country’s chief veterinary officer for 15 years.

Brian EvansHe graduated from the University of Guelph with a bachelor of science in agriculture in 1974 and a doctor of veterinary medicine in 1978.

While at CFIA, he was also Canada’s delegate to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) for 13 years. He was elected secretary general for the OIE regional commission for the Americas and to four consecutive three-year terms as the representative of the member countries of the Americas Region on the OIE’s executive council.

Most recently, he was appointed the international body’s deputy director general responsible for animal health, veterinary public health and international standards.

He is married to Laurianne and has four children.

And is a genuinely thoughtful dude.

Why are inspectors there? Ottawa wants power to fine meat plants for food-safety problems

The Canadian government is proposing to give itself the power to fine meat-processing plants that break hygiene and other operating rules meant to protect human health.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says the regulatory change would restaurant.inspectiongive it another enforcement tool to help protect consumers.

But meat industry representatives and a food safety expert are skeptical. “These proposed new fines demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that Canada’s stringent food safety requirements are being followed,” Lisa Murphy, a CFIA spokeswoman, wrote in an email from Ottawa.

Inspectors already have the power to issue written warnings to companies when problems at meat plants are found. In serious cases, the CFIA can suspend a plant’s licence and shut it down.

The CFIA said the proposed fines range from $2,000 to $15,000 for violations. They could be imposed on a company that was regularly identified for not following food safety rules.

The Canadian Meat Council represents federally inspected meat-packing and processing companies. Spokesman Ron Davidson said such fines are not needed.

“The meat industry does not believe there is a necessity for yet another enforcement tool,” he said.

Davidson wonders why the federal government isn’t seeking to apply such fines to the entire food-processing sector. He suggests Ottawa is larry.the.cable.guy.health.inspectorsingling out the meat industry.

Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food-safety expert, said issuing fines won’t make the meat-processing sector any safer.

Holley said the main challenge the government needs to grapple with is ensuring that food-safety inspectors are rigorously trained to a uniform standard — and that the training is ongoing.

“I don’t think that this attempt is going to improve the safety of food in Canada by one iota,” Holley said.

“The real issue here is the performance of the inspectors in terms of appropriately identifying where problems are that are of significant health impact and then doing follow up.”

Making food safe costs money

With the absence of Rob Ford antics and Olympic hockey news, Canadian media attention has shifted towards federal budget rumors and posturing for the next election. Taking the opportunity of the news lull and budget discussions the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses released a, uh, press release (and corresponding report) for redtape awareness week. The report suggests that complying Canadian Food Inspection Agency requirements costs businesses an average of $20,396 per business or a federal total of $657 million.Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.01.51 PM

From the release:

“Farmers support rules necessary to ensure safe food and are tired of getting the runaround from the CFIA,” says Marilyn Braun-Pollon, CFIB’s vice-president, agri-business. “Spending thousands of dollars and countless hours navigating through confusing forms and contradictory information leaves farmers feeling completely frustrated. And this does nothing to promote food safety.”
Key findings on the CFIA:

Since 2006, the annual average cost of complying with the agency’s rules and paperwork has increased from $19,000 to $20,396 per agri-business owner;

Only one-in-five agri-business owners believe the CFIA provides good ‘overall service’, the same as previous findings in 2006, indicating there is no improvement in  overall service.

60 per cent of agri-business owners say CFIA regulations add significant stress to their lives; and

46 per cent report that the agency’s regulations significantly reduce productivity in their business, up from previous findings (40 per cent) in 2006.

Sort of.

The report details how those compliance numbers are calculated: time spent complying with regulations, new equipment and professional fees.

Except some portion of those expenses are the cost of doing business in a marketplace that demands food safety. Not everything is linked to CFIA bureaucracy: some of the equipment, personnel costs and documentation is industry best practice. Stuff that good companies would do in the absence of regulation.

Making food safely is stressful – and costs money.

Hausmacher pate sold at Nova Scotia farmers’ markets recalled

Where I grew up (Port Hope, Ontario – that’s in Canada), there was a small tailgate farmers market Saturday mornings in the parking lot adjacent to Valu-Mart, but the real event was a trip to either the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto or the Peterborough market on Landsdowne St. Each of the big markets had butchers and I’d usually wrangle my mom into picking up a couple of pepperette sticks (kind of like an unpackaged Slim Jim).

I never really wondered whether the stuff was safe. I didn’t think a whole lot about food safety and regulation until years later. I figured that if someone could sell it, they must know what they are doing, and I didn’t have to worry about it. Food safety is all about trust, and I had lots of it.

I’m not a fan of wurst so I probably wouldn’t have been asking mom for anything like Webber Food’s Hausmacher liver pate, a product that CFIA recalled yesterday.1520738_246504328850770_597368632_n

Webbers Food is recalling “Hausmacher” liver pâté from the marketplace because it may permit the growth of Clostridium botulinum. Consumers should not consume the recalled product described below.

The following product has been sold in glass jars with no label only from November 13, 2013 to December 5, 2013, inclusively, at the following locations in Nova Scotia:
Hammonds Plains Farmers’ Market, Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia
Lunenburg Farmers’ Market, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

There’s not a whole lot of info in the recall notice so I went digging on the Webber’s Food Facebook page. Seems that the product has a water activity of .98 its pH is 6.4.

And the label that was missing was “keep refrigerated.”

Sealed jar, high pH and high aW and no refrigeration is a pretty good way to make botulinum toxin.

Webber Food’s explanation of the story (including a delay of 25 days between the test results and the recall) can be found here.

Followup after recalls a problem for Canadian food inspection agency, auditor finds

It’s sortofa repetitious Canadian thing: a bunch of people get sick and some die, an investigation is carried out, problems are noted, the bureaucrats say they’ve already fixed things and everyone goes back to sleep until the next outbreak.

So it’s not surprising the auditor general says the largest meat recall in Canada’s history – that would be the E. coli O157 outbreak last year bureaucratlinked to the former XL Foods in Alberta — exposed serious shortcomings at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The latest report from auditor general Michael Ferguson says the food inspection agency struggles to follow up on routine recalls and to manage major files, such as the one last year at XL Foods.

Ferguson’s team found widespread confusion among agency officials during emergencies.

During the XL Foods recall, for example, the company received multiple calls from agency officials who apparently didn’t know that their responsibilities shifted during the emergency.

The report says all those calls created confusion and added to the company’s already considerable workload during the crisis.

There was further confusion after the agency ordered one distributor to recall products from a date that was not part of the recall.

So why not make food producers publicly accountable, rather than to a bloated agency, and market food safety at retail that can be verified.

Canada is disappointed with those who don’t follow food safety rules, so they are going to make those who disappoint really, really pay.

Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health, announced the intention to introduce new penalties for businesses that fail to respect Canadian meat safety canada.south.parkrequirements.

“Consumers want a strong and reliable food inspection system on which they can depend to provide safe food,” said Minister Ambrose. “Introducing these new penalties demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that Canada’s stringent food safety requirements are being followed.”

These fines, known as Administrative Monetary Penalties (AMPs), provide Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors with an additional enforcement option when working with the meat industry. For example, they may be applied if a company withholds information, such as a positive E. coli test result, or records that are needed as part of a food safety investigation, or if a company is regularly identified for not complying with requirements.

“Administrative Monetary Penalties are an important element of a modern and effective inspection system,” said Dr. Martine Dubuc, Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada and vice-president, science, CFIA. “They provide an additional option for dealing with the small number of food producers that fail to follow federal food safety regulations.”

Canadian food inspectors to report through Health, not Agriculture

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, largely created and run for the first five years by my eventual friend, Ron Doering, is now going to report to Parliament via Health Canada.

My guess is that everyone got tired of the misguided rants about CFIA reporting through Agriculture, and that Agriculture was there to promote doug.ron.jan.13food, not protect public health, and it was an obvious conflict of interest.

Obvious only to conspiracy seekers.

Doering always had a straight answer – food safety has to come first, otherwise there is no market.

To me, the change is cosmetic, like promoters massaging language, so that genetic engineering becomes natural enhancement, or whatever the marketers are pushing these days.

I don’t care who does the regulating and inspection, as long as the results are available for public scrutiny.

Health Canada brags “this reorganization will strengthen Canada’s food safety system by bringing all three authorities responsible for food safety under one Minister. This will ensure clear focus, easy collaboration, and timely communication with Canadians when it comes to food safety. This change also further underscores the CFIA’s commitment to food safety as a top priority.”

According to Canadian Press, food safety in Canada is a three-way:

• Health Canada develops food safety standards and policies and participates in public awareness campaigns about safe food practices;

• CFIA checks that industry meets federal food safety and regulatory requirements; and,

• the public health agency steps in when outbreaks occur, gauging the scope of the problem, providing epidemiology services and advising people how to protect themselves.

Sounds great. Why has the Public Health Agency of Canada been silent for a week about the latest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in hamburger?