CFIA to launch new listeria testing protocols
Special investigation by CBC News/Toronto Star learns of changes in draft stage
Canada's food watchdog says it will impose more stringent regulations that force food companies across the country to test their deli meats for listeria.
As part of an ongoing joint investigation into food safety, the CBC and Toronto Star learned that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has drafted new testing requirements in the wake of a deadly outbreak that killed at least 20 people and prompted the country's largest food recall.
CFIA spokesperson Marc Richard confirmed that new regulations will soon be introduced, although he didn't say when.
"There are proposals that have been drafted for discussion purposes, however there is nothing finalized and there is no set implementation date," Richard said.
Memos from the boss
Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf and a member of one of the country's most famous food families, has been at the centre of Canada's worst contaminated meat outbreak.
Through his regular company e-mails to managers and an exclusive interview with the Toronto Star and CBC News, we get a fly-on-wall-perspective of the summer listeria crisis that claimed 20 lives and led to tough new food inspection rules.
See the Saturday Star, and on CBC Radio One, tune in for World Report (7, 8 and 9 a.m.) and The World This Weekend (6 p.m.). For further stories from the CBC News/Toronto Star investigation on food safety, go to www.cbc.ca and www.thestar.com
"As with any important change, we draft a proposal and put it out for discussion.... The new listeria policy is the kind of thing we would consult with the new panel of food safety experts."
The proposed measures include two new tests that food plants would have to undergo. The first is for areas near production lines such as ceilings and floors, while the second would scrutinize surfaces that come in contact with meat, including countertops and slicing machines.
If a test comes up positive for Listeria monocytogenes, the company would have to place the meat in quarantine, clean their facilities again and then re-test.
A second positive finding would force the company to test a random sample of the quarantined meat for listeria, which can be found in unpasteurized dairy products, raw vegetables and meats, and processed foods, including deli meats and hot dogs.
If the quarantined meat tests positive, it would have to be destroyed.
According to an internal document obtained by the CBC and the Toronto Star, Maple Leaf Foods has already adapted its internal testing standards since its Toronto-area processing plant was identified as the source of the listeriosis outbreak in August.
The new rules would also require companies such as Maple Leaf to report a trend of positive listeria findings to government inspectors, according to Rick Holley, a professor of microbiology and food safety at the University of Manitoba and a member of an advisory panel recently struck by the CFIA.
That requirement was dropped in April, a previous CBC and Toronto Star investigation revealed.
"It's much like an early warning system," Holley said.
"Where you're manufacturing cook-cured meat product and where it's refrigerated, you will expect to find, over a period of time, reservoirs of this organism which are coming into the plant."
The advisory panel could begin reviewing the proposed testing requirements as soon as next month.
In an internal company document written Oct. 24, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said he was anticipating new protocol for microbiological hazard management from the CFIA "very soon."
"It's a delicate balance because if the new protocols don't come up to the same standards now employed by Maple Leaf, the government stands the risk of being criticized.
"But equally, if it goes beyond Maple Leaf standards (which we would quickly ACCEPT), the government would have a serious challenge of enforcement both domestically and with imports," the memo said.
A comparison of the two testing standards showed the CFIA's proposed regulations are not quite as rigorous as the internal ones at Maple Leaf.
Nonetheless, the CFIA's approach is being welcomed by the union representing meat inspectors.
The Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada demanded reforms after the CBC and Toronto Star revealed that companies were no longer required to warn them right away about positive listeria tests.
"At least it lets the inspector know, it is an alarm bell going off so that they can focus their attention," said union president Bob Kingston.
"Unfortunately, you've still got a situation where at Maple Leaf, you've got [one inspector] who's responsible for seven establishments. That has not changed."
Kingston said the government still needs to hire more inspectors than it's promising.
"And at this point in time, we haven't seen anything from this government that gives us hope as far as that goes, in spite of what they've told the public about putting more money into it."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said his government has hired 200 more inspectors, while Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has promised to hire another 58.
With files from David McKie and Robert Cribb