Inside Politics

Easier info access would further food safety discussion

Researching my latest food-safety story (which you can read here) was revelatory, but an exercise in frustration.

To its credit, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is posting its recall information in a new and user-friendly format.

In researching the story about the increase of class 1 recalls since agency began posting them in November of 2009, I was able to download the entire table into MS Excel, do a bit of clean up, filter the product recall for the class 1 category, the most serious kind, and then count them for each year.

Because the agency only began posting the data in 2009 and we have yet to finish 2011, full year-to-year comparisons were impossible. Still, it was evident something was happening with the most serious recalls, given that the 2011 numbers had already eclipsed the 2010 figures with three months to go before the end of the year.

After much back and forth, and waiting, officials with the agency were able to check their own internal and more detailed numbers and confirm that my analysis was on track. That's the good part. But we only had about two years' worth of data. Meaningful trend analysis requires data for many years. Something the agency has, but chooses not to share unless someone is willing to make an access-to-information request. That's the bad part.

But why the incomplete information online?

In a week when the federal government was touting its so-called "open data initiative" at an international conference that was held in Ottawa, the food inspection agency could hardly be held up as a positive example.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency might want to follow the lead of other federal departments  such as Health Canada and Transport Canada that allow Canadians to download drug and air safety data. Not only do the datasets stretch back many years, but they are easy to download into Excel or a database manager such as Access.

In the United States, a greater number of departments routinely make this information available on everything from drug safety to consumer complaints about the cars they drive.

In Canada, it's hit and miss. A more complete data set on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website would allow Canadians to see for themselves how the recall system has evolved and what improvements need to be made.

An internal audit in 2005, which I reported on as part of a food safety investigation in the wake of the 2008 listeriosis crisis, arrived at many troubling conclusions about a weak recall system that could be jeopardizing the health of Canadians.

It's difficult to know for sure how much better Canadians are well served by the information the agency chooses to share.

For instance, it distinguishes between a recall "incident" and "product" recall. A recall incident is what happened at Maple Leaf Foods. The incident lead to many, subsequent instances of products being pulled off the shelf. So the listeriosis crisis was an example of an "expanded" recall. Yet, the data online fails to make it easy for consumers to distinguish between the two, and figure out if the number of expanded recalls have increased.

Expanded recalls arguably cause more concern because they affect more people. And as our food production becomes more centralized, perhaps we should be keeping an eye on expanded recalls and ensuring that there is proper follow-up.

Intrepid users must piece together some information themselves about expanded recalls by clicking on the links of the individual recall identification numbers. But it's tough slogging.

Last month, the agency released the results of a survey that concluded most Canadians have confidence in the food safety system. There are many reasons they should. Since 2008, the agency and companies have increased their vigilance - but by how much it's impossible to know, because there is little to no information about follow-up investigations to recalls, the number of repeat offenders, or how they're treated to ensure problems don't resurface. It's also unclear whether recalls are actually reaching Canadians, something the 2005 audit said the agency was failing to check.

Perhaps this is why many Canadians polled in the Leger Marketing Survey also concluded that they would have more confidence in the system if they had access to more information.

The agency could start by beefing up its recall data set and making it easier for people to download and analyze. Such a simple move would help to kick-start a meaningful conversation about food safety.

If you have any specific views on this subject, I can be reached at david_mckie@cbc.ca.

Tags: access to information

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