Monday, July 6, 2009

Conservative Deregulation Resulted in Listeriosis Deaths

While Agriculture and Agri-Food minister Gerry Ritz may have found the listeriosis outbreak something to joke about, the families of the victims did not; especially since the tragedy could have been avoided.

Like George Bush, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives believe in privatization and deregulation, and the decisions made by the government four months prior to the outbreak, resulted in one of the worst health crisis in modern times.

On April 1, 2008; fittingly 'April Fools' day, meat-processing companies were no longer required to alert Canada's food safety agency about listeria-tainted meat.

Instead, the Conservative government, now allowed companies to write their own food safety plans, and as a result, 20 Canadian families lost loved ones.

This is reminiscent of the Mike Harris Conservative government in Ontario, that drastically reduced the number of inspectors, resulting in seven deaths in Walkerton, from e-coli.
Meat plants not required to tell food inspectors when bacteria found
Toronto Star
October 06, 2008
Robert Cribb Staff Reporter

Four months before the Maple Leaf outbreak started claiming lives, Canada's food safety agency quietly dropped its rule requiring meat-processing companies to alert the agency about listeria-tainted meat, a Toronto Star/CBC investigation has found.

Twenty people died as a result of the outbreak this past summer, and federal meat inspectors and their union say this rule change likely made the country's listeria outbreak far worse than it had to be.

Before April 1, if a company preparing meat for sale to the public had a positive test showing listeria it "would have had to have been, not only brought to the (federal) inspector's attention, but the inspector would have been involved in overseeing the cleanup," says Bob Kingston, head of the union that represents Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors.

Kingston and four veteran inspectors interviewed for this story fear the change, part of the deregulation of Canada's food safety net, continues to pose a public health threat.

The inspection agency confirmed to the Star/CBC that there is currently no onus on companies to alert inspectors about positive bacterial results. The change came as part of a federal decision to allow companies to write their own food safety plans, with federal approval.

Neither Maple Leaf nor the safety agency will release to the public the specifics of the listeria outbreak at the plant, located on Bartor Rd. near Sheppard Ave. W. and Highway 400, so it is not possible to determine how the reporting rule would have affected the case.

The first of the 20 deaths attributable to the listeriosis outbreak happened in July, officials have said.

One Toronto inspector said there had been a "trend" in positive listeria tests leading up to the outbreak that was never reported by the plant to federal inspectors. The inspector, and three others across the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear disciplinary action if they spoke publicly. "There's something wrong, that an inspector isn't aware of a trend in their own plant," the inspector said.

Inspectors and their union say the rule changes, part of the new Compliance Verification System at the safety agency, have reduced their role to paper auditors, checking the results of company tests when they visit the plant. Under current rules, the inspectors only review bacterial test results twice a month.

Maple Leaf spokesperson Linda Smith said her company makes all of its paperwork and testing available to inspectors but doesn't alert them to positive test results.

"As per the regulations, there is no requirement to inform the CFIA about any listeria test result," she said. "The protocol Maple Leaf had in place was if they found a positive, they would sanitize the area and then you'd need to find three negatives in a row to leave that area alone. In (the Maple Leaf plant from which the outbreak was traced), there were occasional positives. ... They would sanitize and test three subsequent times and in all of those cases, they did not find another positive in that area."

During the outbreak, Maple Leaf president Michael McCain said the company tests the Toronto plant's surfaces 3,000 times a year.

"Positive results for listeria inside a food plant are common," he told reporters at the time, adding that "there was nothing out of the norm" leading up to the outbreak.

Asked for the listeria test results leading up to the outbreak, Smith said last week the company would not release them publicly.

At the union representing federal inspectors, national president Kingston said he has been pushing to have the reporting rule reinstated for the past month.

If inspectors had known about the positive listeria tests, "the CFIA would have been doing their own testing to validate the success of the cleanup,"
Kingston said, adding after April 1, no rules required inspectors be told of any cleanup activities or repeated positives.

A Toronto-area inspector said that if Maple Leaf had been required to report the listeria test results, alarms would have gone off at the federal food safety agency.

"Bells and whistles would have been sounding if (Maple Leaf officials) had to report positive test findings to an inspector."

"We're seeing (20) people dead. We might not have had anybody dead (if company officials were still obligated to report positive listeria findings). ... It's terrible. My dad eats this stuff all the time. I eat it," the inspector said.

A veteran inspector in the Vancouver area said the safety agency needs to go back to being more hands-on in plants. "(The new system) isn't working. Let's go back to basics, get the inspector back in the plant, spending more time there."

Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto's associate medical officer of health, said the reporting change is "absolutely a concern. This may be a perfect example of how self-regulation may not be appropriate."

In the aftermath of the outbreak, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz publicly defended the new inspection regime, saying about 50 per cent of an inspector's time is on the floor of plants and "the other 50 per cent is overseeing paperwork, most of it scientific in nature, test results and the like."

Not so, say inspectors, estimating their time on plant floors is down to between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of their day. "We shouldn't be called inspectors anymore," says one inspector in Vancouver. "We should be called auditors. I think the public wants inspectors on the floor, sleeves rolled up."

Another Toronto inspector says she and her colleagues used to be aware of everything happening in a plant. "Things have changed now. We're more the oversight and they run their own show. The problem ... is, it can all look good on paper, but you've got to be out there to see what's going on."

One inspector was startled to find no reference to mandatory reporting in the safety plans of plants he inspects. "There's nowhere in (the new system) that tells them they have to inform you of a high bacterial load."

That lost oversight, he says, had to play a role in the outbreak.

"I think it would have prevented a preventable situation like the listeria (outbreak). It has alarmed me and it's disappointing. It's a travesty for the department and a shakeup the CFIA needs to get grassroots feedback about what works and what doesn't. (This) isn't working."

But the agency's Graham said the system still protects the public. "Are we missing things? It's unfortunate what's happened here with the outbreak. There's no doubt about that. None of us are happy about that. But is our system a good system? Yes, it is."

Oh, it's a wonderful system. I'm sure 20 Canadian families might disagree though.

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