Food agency database shows rise in serious product recalls

The number of recalls involving possibly deadly food products has increased over the past two years, and it's a trend that is likely to continue as Canada's food safety body steps up its monitoring.

The number of recalls involving possibly deadly food products has increased over the past two years, and it's a trend that is likely to continue as Canada's food safety body steps up its monitoring.

According to a CBC News analysis of product recall data the Canadian Food Inspection Agency posts on its website, the number of its most serious recalls increased from about 129 in 2010 to 147 up until the end of September of this year.

The agency was unable to provide a spokesperson for an interview, but in an e-mailed response, the CFIA confirmed its own internal, more detailed numbers demonstrate a similar trend that could continue next year "at the same rate as we have experienced so far this year."

"The agency is educating itself on how to better monitor risks," says Sylvain Charlebois, a food-safety expert who teaches at the University of Guelph.  "And as a result, we're seeing more recalls. So one shouldn't be surprised by that result.

Lettuce from California, some of which was shipped to Alberta, was recently recalled after a sample tested positive for Listeria contamination. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

"Because we have a voluntary-based recall system in Canada, we rely on the major players in the industry to recognize which products can pose a threat to consumers. This industry is trying to control and contain risk as much as possible."

Of recalls listed on the agency’s website, listeria and E. coli 0157:H7 caused about half the recalls in the class 1 category, considered to be the most serious because the products could make people sick, and in some cases prove fatal if they are consumed.

The E. coli strain has been the subject of the high-profile recalls of several products lately, including walnuts. The recall for raw-shelled walnut products was first announced on Sept.1, and was expanded on five occasions ending on Sept. 12. The products, which were sold in Ontario and Saskatchewan didn’t result in any reported illnesses or deaths.

The most recent product recall at the time of the CBC’s analysis involving listeria was Romaine lettuce distributed in Calgary and Edmonton. The product may have been contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, the most deadly strain that led to at least 23 deaths and Canada’s largest recall in 2008.

Processed meat contaminated with a deadly strain of listeria at a Toronto-area Maple Leaf Foods plant caused the deaths, many of which were elderly people with weakened immune systems living in nursing homes. The crisis led to two investigations, an out-of-court settlement with the families of the victims, and more stringent testing for listeria at meat processing plants.

One of the outcomes from increased scrutiny of Canada’s food safety system was a pledge by the agency to be more transparent, in part by posting more information about recalls, which it began doing in November of 2009.

The product recalls come in three classes, with the first one being the most serious. The second and third classes are less serious and may lead to recalls. In the past, the agency only alerted Canadians about class 1 recalls in the form of warning letters posted on its website and news releases that may have been picked up by the media.

In 2005, an internal audit was critical of its recall system, concluding that it was broken and needed to be fixed. "A public warning may be issued depending on the seriousness of the health risk, the audit noted. "There is no clear policy on when a recall requires public warning."  Now the agency posts recalls in all three categories in a table that is easier for consumers to read.

Sylvain Charlebois says posting recall data on its website is a good first step, but the agency needs to go further. For instance, information on whether recalls are successful or not are not contained in the database.

The 2005 audit, which the agency says led to many changes, also noted that "….processes and strategies do not appear to be in place for systematically dealing with repeat (recall) offenders."

Charlebois says this is the kind of information that Canadians need in order to have the ultimate confidence in the safety of their food.

"You don’t see a thorough, transparent, risk-communication strategy that really stretches over time. If as a consumer you want to know what has happened with the investigation into Maple Leaf, you'll be hard-pressed to find detailed information about some of the investigations that were ongoing at the time.

"I think we should think about creating a separate agency that would not only convey information to the general public, but this independent agency would also make sure that these investigations are reported to the general public and Parliament. So Parliament knows what’s going on about food policy and food-safety measures."

Charlebois says these reforms would help restore the public’s confidence in the food they eat. He says research at the University of Guelph shows that confidence has been decreasing ever since the 2008 listeriosis crisis.

This seems to contradict a recent survey conducted for the agency that found 68 per cent of Canadians gave the system a favorable confidence rating, up from 65 per cent in 2010 and 60 per cent in 2008, concluded the agency on its website.

However, the survey concluded, "More communication activities would increase awareness and help provide increased levels of confidence in the system."

If you have specific information about this topic that you’d like to share with David McKie, he can be reached at david_mckie@cbc.ca