Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians
Executive Summary

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Introduction

Listeriosis is a rare but serious foodborne illness. It primarily affects older people, pregnant women and immuno-compromised adults, all of whom are more vulnerable to foodborne illness than the general population. In the summer of 2008, the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat caused a listeriosis outbreak, which resulted in the deaths of 23 Canadians.

Immediately after the outbreak, both industry and government began to examine how they could work to prevent such an outbreak in the future, and to minimize harm when food contamination occurs. At the federal level, each of the organizations responsible for food safety and foodborne illness events—the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)—implemented an action plan to strengthen its response to outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Because of the serious nature of the listeriosis outbreak, the Government of Canada also asked Ms. Sheila Weatherill to lead an independent investigation into the circumstances of the outbreak and to make recommendations to strengthen the food safety system.

The Weatherill Report

In July 2009, the Report of the Independent Investigator into the 2008 Listeriosis Outbreak (the Weatherill Report) was submitted to the Government and publicly released.

The Report describes the Canadian food safety system and the responsibilities of industry and government, examines what went wrong, and puts forward a set of recommendations for strengthening the food safety system and for minimizing the risk of a similar outbreak in the future. The Report notes that most of its recommendations are for "swift and significant action in key areas" and encourages the Government to look for "longer-term solutions to the remaining challenges."Footnote 1

The Report relates the chain of events that led to the recall of meat products from a meat processing plant in central Ontario, and assesses how well federal organizations and their food safety partners responded to those events. In September 2009, the Government committed to acting on all of the recommendations of the Weatherill Report.

The Government Responds

The actions taken to meet the Weatherill Report recommendations have had a widespread positive impact on Canada's food inspection and foodborne illness outbreak response systems.

In addition, the Government is developing a new food safety bill in the House of Commons to address the recommendation of the Independent Investigator to modernize and simplify food safety legislation.

The Government has enhanced its overall performance and effectiveness in managing food safety risks, identifying new and emerging food safety issues, and responding to food safety events when they arise. There is heightened awareness of the significance of food safety, and its high priority, at all levels of government.

As detailed below, work has been done to reduce the risk of listeriosis, to improve governance among and within food safety partner organizations, and to improve their ability to prevent foodborne illness, detect pathogens like Listeria, enhance surveillance activities that track food safety hazards, and respond effectively when an outbreak of foodborne illness occurs. Changes like these are resulting in better management not only of Listeria monocytogenes but also of all food safety hazards.

Reducing the Risk of Listeriosis

Improvements specific to the risks of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods include a comprehensive review and revision (2011) of Health Canada's Listeria policy, the introduction of tests designed to identify Listeria monocytogenes more quickly, and increased surveillance of Listeria through the National Enteric Surveillance Program. These and other changes such as information campaigns aimed at high-risk populations have reduced the risk of an outbreak of listeriosis and will ensure that if an outbreak were to occur, it would be more swiftly detected and the outbreak response more quickly initiated.

Governance

The work of the Special Committee of Deputy Heads (SCDH), which was formed to oversee the coordination of the implementation of the Weatherill Report recommendations, has improved interaction and collaboration among the organizations responsible for food safety. In addition, communication channels and information-sharing mechanisms are now more extensive as a result of the SCDH. The Committee receives real-time information updates from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada and the Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada on any potential food safety initiatives and issues. SCDH partners have strengthened their relationships and created a culture in which information is shared among partners so that when a food safety incident occurs, they are in a much better position to take effective action. The SCDH structure provides a platform for ongoing collaboration to enhance the food safety system's ability to anticipate and proactively address emerging issues.

Prevention: Minimizing the Risk of Foodborne Illness

Today, Canadians are at a lower risk of exposure to contaminated ready-to-eat meat because the meat processing industry and regulators have worked to enhance environmental testing and food sample testing for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. The Government promised to hire new food safety staff and has hired 170 full-time food safety inspectors, as well as additional health risk assessment staff. Investments in new inspector tools, technology and training have improved efficiency and ensured that inspectors have the necessary resources to provide effective oversight of industry food safety systems. There is also a wider range of possible food safety interventions for the food industry to use through an accelerated approval process for new food additives and technologies of public health relevance. Consumer food safety education campaigns—in particular with the aim of educating and protecting vulnerable populations before and during a foodborne illness outbreak—have reached a large audience through the use of social media, as well as more traditional means of communication.

Surveillance and Detection: Keeping Track of Food Safety Hazards

The Government undertook to improve national public health surveillance to better link cases of foodborne illness and more rapidly identify outbreaks. By taking action on the Weatherill Report recommendations on surveillance and detection of foodborne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, jurisdictions are better able to identify outbreaks more quickly. Innovative, fast and reliable new laboratory procedures and detection methodologies have enabled more rapid detection of hazards in food. Action has also been taken on the development of a network of networks, which will further improve future surveillance and detection activities through the integration of laboratory networks.

Response to Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness

Improvements to the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP), the Government's blueprint for handling multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks, and the development of the Health Portfolio Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan provide greater clarity on how to manage outbreak and emergency situations. The FIORP (2010) has been instrumental in helping the Government answer its commitment to improve coordination among federal and provincial departments and agencies. Roles and responsibilities are clearer, information sharing and communication guidelines are in place and internal surge capacity is identified, should an outbreak occur.

Conclusion

As this report describes, the Government of Canada has taken action to implement all of the recommendations made by the Independent Investigator.

The commitment of $75 million announced in September 2009 demonstrated the Government's intention to move quickly on these recommendations. In Budget 2010, CFIA was allotted an additional $13 million annually for two years to fund increased inspection capacity for meat and poultry processing facilities. Budget 2011 provided $100 million over five years to invest in inspector training, tools and technology, and science capacity. The funding will allow CFIA to implement a risk-based and proactive inspection system with enhanced science capacity to support risk-based decision making, and improved information management technology to enable modernization. All of these investments build on the Government's 2008 commitment to invest $489.5 million over five years in the Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan.

The Government of Canada will continue to review and adjust its food safety standards, policies and operational procedures to ensure that its oversight of food safety remains effective. In our complex and increasingly integrated global economy, with food sources and food production-and-distribution methods in a state of constant evolution, vigilance is required, both of regulators and of industry, to ensure prevention and the effective management of new and emerging risks to food safety.

Clearly, there is always more work to be done. The food safety system requires collaboration among government partners, industry and consumers. Collective effort and sustained action are necessary to be able to respond to new and emerging risks that foodborne illness can pose to Canadians. Strengthening the food safety system is a continuous process to which the Government of Canada is fundamentally committed.

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