Sunday, July 26, 2009

Oh Canada!

July 26, 2009

When I worked for Canada's Health Protection Branch ("HPB") in the 1970s, we were blessed with the same type of splintered national food safety regulatory system that the United States still enjoys today.

Agriculture Canada was responsible for meat and poultry. It also handled certification of exports, such as nonfat dry milk. Fisheries and Oceans oversaw fish and seafood. Consumer Affairs monitored labeling issues. Provincial Agriculture or Health departments had exclusive authority over food processors that did not ship products across provincial boundaries.

HPB – nominally responsible for all aspects of food, drug and cosmetics regulation – was not permitted to encroach on other departmental turf, unless invited. Even when another department uncovered a problem, such as Salmonella contamination in nonfat dry milk, HPB had to replicate the Salmonella-positive finding in a fresh set of samples before it could send an inspection team to the processing plant.

I was in charge of the microbiology group that provided lab support to HPB's Québec Region inspection team in 1976, when we learned Рto our great delight Рthat Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was planning to consolidate all federal food safety activities under a single department. Although we knew that Eugene Whelan, the Minister of Agriculture, was one of the most powerful cabinet members, my colleagues and I hoped that HPB would be that department.

In an unprecedented move, the Speech From The Throne (the annual unveiling of the government's plans for the coming year) was broadcast live through our building's public address system. All non-essential work halted that morning, as we listened for the short statement that would set the single-agency decision in motion. Imagine our dismay when The Speech ended without any mention of food safety – let alone the establishment of a single agency. At the last moment, Mr. Whelan had managed to torpedo the policy announcement.

Two decades later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ("CFIA") was born – and was delivered into the hands of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. All federal food inspection responsibilities, together with the supporting lab facilities, were transferred to CFIA. Risk assessment research, instead of being consolidated within CFIA, was shipped in the other direction – to Health Canada.

The splintering of responsibility and authority was described in CFIA's first Departmental Performance Report:

"The creation of the CFIA clearly reinforces the division of federal powers between the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the Minister of Health. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, through the CFIA, retains responsibility for establishing animal and plant health standards and providing related inspection activities. With regard to food, the CFIA conducts all federal food inspection activities while Health Canada establishes policies and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of food sold in Canada. In addition, Health Canada assesses the effectiveness of the Agency’s activities related to food safety."

Canada's single agency solution was the equivalent of turning over all US food inspection authority from FDA to USDA, while transferring all of the research and risk assessment activities to FDA. Responsibility for enforcement of Canada's food safety laws was handed to the same government department that was charged with promoting the country's agricultural and food industry. Instead of creating an independent food safety agency, the Canadian government gave the foxes a larger hen house to supervise.

The split personality inherent in Canada's food safety system was fingered last week as one of the elements that hamstrung the government's response to last year's deadly outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes. According to Sheila Weatherill, appointed by the Prime Minister to investigate the outbreak,

"The lack of a clear understanding about which organization or level of government was responsible for doing what – including which organization should lead the response to the crisis – contributed to the inconsistent management of the outbreak."

The US government is currently reexamining this country's food regulatory system, including the possible establishment of a single food safety agency. Before food safety reform is sent irretrievably down a specific pathway in the United States, members of Congress and the Administration's Food Safety Working Group should study the Canadian experience carefully. A regulatory agency must be free from any conflicting mandates, and must be given all of the research and investigative tools needed to do its job.

As a result of my own experiences while working at HPB in the 1970s, I strongly believe that a single, independent US federal food safety agency would be far preferable to the fragmented system that is currently in place. But it must be done right. Carving up areas of responsibility, authority and resources into bite-size pieces to placate politicians would be a recipe for disaster.

1 comment:

  1. How true! As a Canadian, it is very disturbing for me to see the Harper government's "Hands off" approach to the Maple Leaf meat contamination scandal. Why should we trust the company responsible for the fatal errors to rectify the situation and believe them when they say that all is now well? I fear that more food contamination (and consumer deaths) are in store for we who purchase Canadian food. We need far more checks and balances in than we currently have in Canada.

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