Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians
Reducing Food Safety Risks
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The Independent Investigator's first subject of concern is an "insufficient focus on food safety among senior management in both the public and private domainsFootnote 4. The Weatherill Report finds that contamination trends were not being monitored properly, that approval of new food safety interventions were not prioritized, and that the information flow upward to senior ranks, both public and private, was suboptimal. As well, new food safety programs were slow to be implemented, and the vagueness of some policies and directives left them open to interpretation.
The Government has undertaken a complete and thorough response to the Investigator's concerns, beginning with the comprehensive review and revision by Health Canada of its Listeria policy. As well, action has been taken to implement a new process to prioritize the pre-market approval of food safety interventions, such as certain food additives. Improvements have also been made to assessment procedures with respect to evidence of contamination and to the risk posed to the consumer. A major review of the meat inspection system has also been conducted. Manuals, guidelines, regulations and policies that govern food processing and food safety in Canada have been reassessed and updated. Finally, special attention has been given to improving the way in which the Government and its partners communicate with Canadians about foodborne illness outbreaks.
Culture of Continuous Improvement:
"One of the tangible results of the recommendations is that they collectively impress on all stakeholders involved in food safety the need to adopt a culture of continuous improvement. The adoption of this culture is essential as the world of food safety becomes more integrated, and interdependencies in production, processing, retail and consumption become more pronounced."
Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada
Policies and Procedures
Health Canada's Listeria Policy Revision
After the 2008 listeriosis outbreak linked to processed meat, Health Canada began a review to update its policy "Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat (RTE) Foods" using the latest scientific information available.
This policy is used by the food industry and CFIA as a guide to action that can be taken to reduce the risk of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in all RTE foods. It enhances the ability of food manufacturers to identify and reduce Listeria contamination of food processing environments and finished food products. It also provides guidance, not only to industry regarding the verification and control of Listeria in RTE foods, but also to regulatory authorities regarding oversight and compliance activities for RTE foods contaminated with Listeria. In addition, the policy is applicable to all RTE foods, including meat, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products.
The 2011 policy includes new end-product compliance criteria that are similar to the international Codex Alimentarius Commission standards; categories of RTE foods according to risk; a more detailed compliance-action decision tree; advice on including an environmental monitoring program in all processing plants; and encouragement to use treatments that inhibit or eliminate the growth of Listeria monocytogenes.
The policy also contains an increased focus on outreach to the federal/provincial/territorial (FPT) community to increase awareness of the risks of foodborne listeriosis and to provide guidance on how to reduce the risks in institutions where the more vulnerable may be exposed.
Interested parties were consulted about the policy in spring 2010, and industry began to proactively improve food manufacturing operations with the help of Health Canada's updated guidance. The final policy was published on Health Canada's website and has been in effect since April 1, 2011. The guidance provided by Health Canada in the revised policy will continue to strengthen the Canadian food safety system and reduce the risk of outbreaks similar to the 2008 event.
In addition, Health Canada has updated its list of recommended Listeria testing methods available to industry. Thirteen methods for Listeria have been validated and maintained in the Compendium of Analytical Methods on Health Canada's website in April 2011, at the same time that the revised Listeria policy came into effect. This provides industry with a wide range of validated testing methods to choose from.
Since the Listeria policy came into effect in April 2011, CFIA has continued to work with industry to oversee its full implementation. The Agency sent information letters to firms producing RTE foods to outline the key elements of the Listeria policy and to encourage food business operators to conduct a full review of the policy to make sure that its key components and recommended food safety practices were well understood. These notices were later posted on CFIA's website.
Information sessions were arranged with industry to raise awareness of the revised Listeria policy and to encourage industry adoption of the food safety practices it describes. Further sessions are planned to provide ongoing support to the revised policy.
Health Canada Listeria Policy
The updated policy includes:
1. new criteria for compliance, based on the possible health risks associated with certain foods, and the likelihood that they could contain levels of bacteria capable of causing illness;
2. updated definitions of which ready-to-eat foods can/cannot support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes;
3. specific guidance about the decision-making process when positive samples are found, including more details related to sampling, the appropriate moment to notify regulatory authorities, record keeping and specific processes and steps to be followed;
4. a recommendation that an environmental monitoring program be established in all processing plants that produce ready-to-eat foods; and
5. recommendations encouraging the use of post-processing treatments and growth inhibitors.
Updating CFIA's Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedures
CFIA has also updated its Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedures to reflect the revisions to Health Canada's Listeria policy. The Manual was prepared as a reference document for CFIA inspectors and establishments in the Canadian meat hygiene program, principally the meat processing industry.
The Manual references policies related to importing, exporting and interprovincial meat products trading, as well as those (such as the present policy on Listeria monocytogenes) that concern the preparation of meat products in establishments licensed under the 1990 Meat Inspection Act and Regulations.
The adjustments to the Manual provide greater clarity with respect to existing processes, and introduce risk-based sampling, as was specified in the Weatherill Report. Sampling plans will continue to be updated and revised as required, based on product risk and the establishment's risk profile, in accordance with the Listeria policy.
To maintain the food industry's awareness of significant changes to the Manual, an email subscription service is available on the CFIA website that alerts subscribers whenever changes are made.
CFIA has also modified inspection activities for other high-risk RTE foods, including dairy, fish, and raw and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables that are minimally processed. In addition to the current level of end-product sampling, CFIA is planning increased inspections, including follow-up to Listeria findings, as well as environmental monitoring programs to verify the effectiveness of industry controls.
CFIA Manuals and Policies
In April 2011, CFIA introduced streamlined business processes and began developing a framework and additional business strategies to facilitate the routine updating of its manuals, which include details on regulations, directives and food safety programs.
Imported-food surveillance activities have also been reviewed and are being updated under the Government's Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan. The Plan is a series of initiatives to modernize and strengthen Canada's safety system for food, health and consumer products, and to better support the collective responsibilities that government, industry and consumers have to ensure product safety.
As a result of the routine updating of manuals, regulated parties and inspectors have access to better guidance on the latest directives, policies and regulations. These regular updates also promote uniformity and consistency in the application of directives, policies and regulations, and are expected to increase industry compliance rates.
New Environmental Monitoring Requirements
As part of food inspection, environmental monitoring is done to ensure that harmful bacteria are not present in the food processing environment. This involves the sampling (swabbing) and testing of facility surfaces and areas. In February 2009, CFIA published an amendment to the Listeria directive that requires environmental monitoring of food contact surfaces to detect the presence of Listeria in federally registered meat establishments.
CFIA is also increasing its capacity for trend analysis, including through developing a prototype system to monitor Listeria monocytogenes test results, both from industry and from CFIA testing programs and inspections. CFIA will collect and analyze data and test results from processing plants to better identify trends and areas of concern in establishments where risks are highest.
This improved risk-based approach to managing sampling plans, determining sampling frequencies and analyzing test results will enable CFIA to focus its efforts and resources on those products and establishments with the highest level of risk. Beginning in 2011, the frequency of required environmental sampling is being adjusted in establishments to match the level of risk for each product. CFIA will continue to identify establishments producing lower-risk products and decrease the level of sampling required for these establishments, while increasing sampling for establishments producing higher-risk products. Trend analysis of test results for each establishment will also enable inspectors to identify recurring patterns that may indicate compliance issues or a persistent problem that requires the attention of inspectors.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has taken a proactive approach to reducing exposure to—and consequently illness related to—Listeria monocytogenes, by revising monitoring programs for ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and food contact surfaces. These revisions will allow the Agency to optimize its resources by adjusting sampling frequency per individual RTE establishment, based on risk factors such as the type of product and compliance history. The Agency recognizes that more can and will be done to improve food safety standards, programs and operational procedures. Trend-analysis work will provide the Agency with the data and tools required to take a proactive, risk-based approach to managing and responding to constantly changing food safety risks. This work will enable governments to maintain consistency across food safety standards, programs, policies and operational procedures.
Food Safety Enhancement Program Manual
CFIA administers the Food Safety Enhancement Program (FSEP), whose main objective is to ensure that the conditions of food production result in safe food. The Program guides industry's implementation of risk-based food safety systems, as well as CFIA's inspection activities. Mandatory requirements include monitoring and verifying manufacturing processes, maintaining food safety records and updating the food safety system regularly.
The Food Safety Enhancement Program Manual has been updated to specify the records-maintenance standards that CFIA expects food processors to meet. Food processors are required to include all standard operating procedures in their food safety management system. In the event of a recall, regulated parties must provide the distribution records of the recalled products to CFIA in a format that is readily accessible and legible.
The revised FSEP Manual also details the requirements to be met by senior management in food processing establishments to ensure that the establishment complies with all regulatory and CFIA program requirements, and that its food safety system meets all the Manual's requirements.
Distribution Information and Recall Decisions
CFIA has promoted better sharing of distribution and recall information during various stages of recall activities by encouraging processors to allow for electronic accessibility to distribution records in unlocked formats in order to assist in potential product recalls. The Agency has established a formal protocol to ensure that timely and consistent information is provided to provincial/territorial or local public health organizations to help with post-recall verification activities. A standardized form has also been developed to be used by the distribution industry for providing information related to a product recall.
CFIA has developed the Food Investigation and Response Manual (FIRM) to provide guidance to CFIA staff conducting food safety investigations and recalls. The FIRM consists of procedures and templates to guide inspectors in the collecting and sharing of information. Among these, for example, is a template for sharing information with provinces and territories during post-recall verification activities. The FIRM also includes a revised checklist for gathering implementation information and verifying the establishment's recall plan.
Taken together, these measures improve the quality, strength and consistency of information used in recall decisions and permit the affected industry to act quickly to mitigate the identified risk. Better sharing of distribution information assists in determining quickly the magnitude of the foodborne outbreak and whether vulnerable populations may have been exposed to the product. It also contributes to timely identification of the source of a foodborne illness and the removal of contaminated food from the marketplace. Finally, in the case of a product recall, improved sharing of distribution and recall information helps CFIA and its regulatory partners verify that all contaminated products have been removed from store shelves.
Compliance and Enforcement Operational Policy
CFIA has also revised its Compliance and Enforcement Operational Policy to ensure consistency in enforcement practices across the country. The updated policy was posted on the Agency's website on February 9, 2011.
The Compliance and Enforcement Operational Policy outlines CFIA's approach to its compliance management activities, which include helping regulated parties understand their obligation to comply with legislative requirements, monitoring compliance and performing inspection activities. It also itemizes the various tools available to CFIA for responding to non-compliance of food safety legislation.
When CFIA identifies non-compliance, it can, for example:
- refuse entry of shipments into Canada;
- issue warnings or penalties for non-compliance;
- suspend or cancel licences, registrations or permits;
- recommend to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada that violators be prosecuted; and
- seize and detain shipments and products.
The Policy is supported by a suite of strategies that provide guidance on the enforcement actions available under the various pieces of legislation that CFIA enforces.
The updates to the Policy result in greater consistency and effectiveness of compliance and enforcement actions across the country, as well as increased transparency with respect to the roles and responsibilities of the CFIA officials who enforce and administer food safety legislation. Canadians can be confident that CFIA has in place a reliable and credible food inspection system on which they can depend for safe food and consumer protection. Canadians can also be confident that contraventions of the law will be met with meaningful, predictable and appropriate compliance and enforcement action.
CFIA continues to work with consumers and industry on compliance and enforcement issues while practising fairness, impartiality and consistency.
Food Safety Research
Investigating New Technologies
Technology is ever evolving, and today's cutting-edge research could lead to tomorrow's next food safety breakthrough. To evaluate the potential of new food safety technologies, Health Canada actively conducts research to identify those that could be of benefit to Canadians.
In particular, Health Canada scientists have been conducting research to examine the effects of high-pressure processing on both Listeria and pathogenic E. coli. The goal is to understand how this technology affects the bacteria in hopes of identifying where it could be most useful (for specific foods or under certain conditions in controlling these bacteria).
Guelph Food Research Facility
On November 9, 2010, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) opened its upgraded pilot plant research facility at its Guelph Food Research Centre. Through funding of $1.1 million from an accelerated Economic Action Plan investment program to modernize federal laboratories, the existing plant became the most advanced Level II food processing containment facility in Canada and now meets higher biosecurity requirements for handling the most serious pathogens.
The facility is unique in Canada in that it allows scientists to use pilot scale equipment in its state-of-the-art lab to test drive and validate some of the latest food safety technologies. Three special containment units, called BioBubbles, are permitting scientists to work with some of the most serious threats to food safety such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella in a very safe environment. Some of the emerging food safety technologies being investigated in the new laboratory involve the treatment of those pathogens with ultra-high pressure, ultraviolet light, microwaves, ultrasounds and ozone.
AAFC scientists and their university partners work on collaborative projects with industry to help them develop and adopt innovative new food processing techniques.
The lab also works with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to validate the safety of food processing techniques and test innovative new processes. Collaborative research is planned with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada to address public health and regulatory issues related to new food products and processes.
Improved Decision-Making Processes
Health Canada is responsible for approving food safety interventions with proven health benefits, such as the use of food additives that reduce the growth of pathogens like Listeria.
Health Canada has finalized a policy document, Priority Scheduling and Expedited Handling of Submissions that have the Capacity to Enhance Food Safety, which guides industry with respect to those applications that warrant such expedited reviews at the submission stage. The document was posted on Health Canada's website in January 2011. The specific eligibility criteria were developed in order to identify those applications that merit priority handling. The initial response from industry has been positive, and Health Canada has started to receive submissions requesting priority handling.
In addition, Health Canada is assessing other regulatory strategies that would help shorten approval timelines for safe additives, as well as for other food safety interventions. For example, Health Canada has initiated a streamlined approach to publishing its intent to amend regulations to allow the use of certain food additives. The new approach is to post web consultations of intended amendments and notify trading partners while the drafting of the regulations is under way (instead of publishing such intents in the Canada Gazette, Part I). Other areas for regulatory modernization are also being explored. These improvements will result in more food safety interventions being available to industry sooner, which will in turn contribute to the management and mitigation of food safety risks.
Food Additives and Other Food Safety Interventions with Food Safety Benefits
Food additives are used for a variety of reasons. Some make foods more attractive or improve their texture, but many have important uses related to ensuring the safety of foods.
Following the recommendations in the Weatherill Report, Health Canada launched a new policy that allows for the prioritized review of food additives and other food safety interventions that show promise of providing a food safety benefit. These interventions will now be reviewed on a priority basis, rather than on a first-come, first-served basis.
This process does not change the requirement that companies demonstrate the safety of an intervention, but it may significantly reduce the time it takes to have them assessed.
The compounds described below are examples of additives that have a food safety and health benefit. Although these were evaluated before implementing the new policy, they serve as examples of the types of food additives that would be eligible for priority handling under the new policy.
Sodium Acetate and Sodium Diacetate
Since 2008, sodium acetate and sodium diacetate have been available in Canada for use as antimicrobial preservatives in meat and poultry products. When added to processed ready-to-eat foods such as sausages and deli meat, they help to limit the growth of Listeria monocytogenes. Both have been proven safe.
An antibacterial preservative, Carnobacterium maltaromaticum, was approved for sale in Canada in December 2010. It is effective against Listeria monocytogenes in specific ready-to-eat, vacuum-packed meat and poultry products, including hot dogs, sliced cooked ham, sliced roast beef and sliced cooked turkey.
In response to the findings of the Independent Investigator and the lessons learned from the outbreak, Health Canada led the development of a guidance document that would help decision makers to assess the quality and strength of evidence accumulated during foodborne outbreak investigationsFootnote 5. An interdepartmental team quickly began to develop a systematic approach to decision making, using the overall weight of evidence to determine appropriate risk management actions during foodborne illness outbreaks.
The document suggests factors to consider and provides guidance on the assigning of weight when assessing evidence gathered as a result of microbiological, epidemiological and food safety investigations. It also defines the type and weight of evidence sufficient to take action, thus providing a framework to facilitate timely and appropriate actions. The document was intended primarily for a federal audience, but since decision makers at all levels of government would need to consider similar criteria and weighting, FPT governments and selected international partners were consulted during the drafting process.
The document is now being used in foodborne illness outbreak investigations. The systematic approach it prescribes is expected to improve emergency preparedness and the response of regulatory authorities involved in these investigations.
"Investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks are complex. Investigators are often unable to directly link an outbreak to a food source, or we may have suspicions about a food source that can't be scientifically confirmed.
In an effort to be more transparent and to have a consistent approach to managing these situations, investigators have developed a new weight-of-evidence guidance document—a pioneering document among national food safety regulators—about the factors to consider when investigating a possible foodborne outbreak. The document considers the many factors that play a role in an investigation and provides guidance on how the strength of the evidence may be used to determine the food source for an outbreak.
The document was peer-reviewed both nationally and internationally, and will be published in a scientific journal so that other regulators can take advantage of the work done in Canada.
There are three types of evidence that feed the risk assessment process: microbiological evidence (specific details about the bacteria involved), epidemiological evidence (information about the cases of illness, including what the patient ate and when) and trace-back/trace-forward evidence (information from an investigation of the distribution of the food).
Conclusions stemming from the investigation depend on the strength of these various types of evidence. For example, if bacteria are found in an opened package of food, that evidence is not as strong as it would be if the bacteria were found in a closed package, because of the possibility of cross-contamination when the customer originally opened the package.
Ultimately, a decision needs to be made based on the total "weight of evidence" in each case, and this guidance document provides the decision-making framework so that those decisions are made consistently and in the best interests of Canadians."
Dr. Jeff Farber, Director, Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Health Canada
Health Risk Assessments
Health Canada's Food Directorate conducts food-related human health risk assessments for CFIA so that it can make decisions on food recalls as part of its responsibility for enforcing food-related standards. These assessments involve determining if the presence of a certain substance or micro-organism in food (e.g. chemical contaminant, natural toxin, allergen, unapproved food additive, bacteria, virus or parasite) poses a health risk to consumers. If it is found that a substance or micro-organism in food poses a human health risk, risk management actions are taken to reduce or possibly eliminate any risk that is posed to people who consume the food in question.
The Weatherill Report notes some limitations in Health Canada's capacity to carry out human health risk assessments in a timely way, particularly during the outbreak of 2008. The Department has hired additional specialized experts, and continues to strengthen its capacity with risk assessment expertise by training additional health-risk-assessment staff in order to sustain its capacity to provide 24/7 coverage and to meet a surge in demand in the case of a national foodborne illness event. As well, the Department has enhanced the procedures used to provide health risk assessment in support of CFIA during its food safety investigations, including establishing service standard times for health-risk-assessment responses. The quality of risk assessments is also being enhanced through improved methodologies in line with recent scientific developments. As a result, Health Canada is able to continually and rapidly respond to the growing number of requests for health risk assessments.
Inspectors and Their Tasks
Each federally registered meat processing plant must have a food safety plan. The Government's Compliance Verification System (CVS) sets out the procedures to be used by inspectors to verify the design and implementation of such plans. The Weatherill Report notes that the CVS is well regarded and broadly supported in the field, but that improvements to its design, planning and implementation are needed.
In response, the Government of Canada conducted a comprehensive review of the CVS. The lessons learned from this review are helping CFIA to align resources with workload requirements. The Comprehensive Review of the Compliance Verification System report is available through the Government's Food Safety Portal website (www.foodsafety.gc.ca) and can also be found on the CFIA website at www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/transp/prog/compe.shtml.
Review of the Compliance Verification System
The CVS identifies specific inspection tasks or testing requirements that must be carried out by inspectors when conducting compliance verification. An Expert Panel reviewed the technical requirements of the CVS, including the details of the CVS tasks, the frequency of task assignment, and the amount of time allocated to each task. The Panel concluded that the CVS provides an excellent system overall for documenting the inspector's verification activities, and that the CVS tasks are well-aligned with CFIA's food safety regulations. At the same time, these reviews have been instrumental in providing CFIA with the information to make significant enhancements to the food inspection system.
CFIA worked with the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Agriculture Union (the union representing federal meat inspectors) to conduct an assessment of the CVS implementation at the field level. The assessment indicated that front-line inspection staff recognized the improvement that the CVS represents over past inspection approaches, namely that it increases consistency and provides the level of detail required by inspectors to conduct their verification activities. Areas identified for examination and improvement included inspector training, information management and technology, and the management of workloads. The recommendations made by the Expert Panel and by the front-line assessment report are now being applied to the CVS.
Additionally, an internal audit of the CVS was conducted to provide assurance that CFIA's meat inspection activities are compliant with the Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedures. The audit report has been posted on the CFIA website.
A third-party review of CFIA's calculation of the resources required by the Agency to deliver the CVS in federally registered meat establishments was concluded in October 2010. The Government made funds available to hire 170 full-time food safety inspectors, and as of January 2011, CFIA had hired all 170 inspectors. This investment fulfills the requirement for additional inspection resources in federally registered meat establishments, including for the delivery of the CVS tasks.
The review of the CVS technical requirements recommended increased flexibility for inspectors so that they could react more effectively to non-routine and emergency situations. The CVS now provides greater freedom for inspectors to pursue any food safety situation they might encounter during the inspection process. The CVS procedures have been strengthened to ensure that the inspector is aware of current conditions and processes, and any areas of concern that may have an impact on food safety.
In addition, streamlined human resource processes and a national recruitment strategy have been implemented to support inspection managers and supervisors. These developments will allow inspection managers and supervisors more time to oversee inspection staff.
The National Training Plan for Meat Processing Inspectors has been developed, based on an assessment of training needs. This plan addresses required inspection competencies and skills, ensuring that inspectors have the skills to effectively deliver inspection programs.
A key course in the Agency's new core training program was evaluated four months after the training was delivered to assess desired behaviours in the workplace. The evaluation confirmed that training participants perceived gains in their knowledge and skills. In addition, all supervisors indicated that staff members are more confident that they understand laboratory test results, that they can provide information to industry, and that they can interact and discuss issues more effectively with other inspectors.
All meat inspectors hired since 2009 will have been trained by March 31, 2012, and all new meat processing inspectors are slated to complete the same training. Training sessions are tracked to ensure that inspection staff have completed all technical courses.
Training and Modern Technologies:
New core training sessions ensure that inspectors have the required skills to effectively deliver inspection programs. The National Training Plan for Meat Processing Inspectors outlines a 29-week series of training modules consisting of in-class instruction, coaching/mentoring, self-study and e-learning.
This training is being delivered both in-class and online to make delivery more efficient and standard across Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regions. CFIA has made a significant investment in information technology that will allow inspection staff to access the CFIA network remotely and to benefit from e-learning modules. E-learning products will offer CFIA inspection staff a flexible way to update and maintain knowledge and skill sets. Thus, inspection staff across the country need not wait until formal courses can be delivered to a specific area. E-learning will support national standardization in knowledge and skill development, resulting in a better-trained workforce that applies regulations in a consistent manner from coast to coast.
Providing modern technologies to inspectors has increased their efficiency and improved their ability to document and share their findings. Over 950 computers have been purchased, including 446 laptops for mobile workers. As well, the number of sites connected to the CFIA network was increased from 385 to 436. In addition, a pilot project completed on April 1, 2010, assessed whether inspectors—particularly those in remote areas—could benefit from wireless cellular network technology that would allow them secure access to the CFIA computer network applications. The Agency is now in the process of distributing wireless cellular network devices to provide high-speed laptop connectivity from virtually any location. Connecting the inspector, rather than connecting a work location, will allow inspectors access to the CFIA network wherever they are—in the plant, between plants or elsewhere. This allows inspectors real-time access to CFIA files and applications to support decision making and improve communication. Better and faster information sharing has a direct effect on the Agency's ability to identify and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks.
Consumer Food Safety Education and Information
Consumer food safety education plays an important role in preventing foodborne illness. According to recent public opinion research, Canadians generally believe that it is everyone's responsibility to ensure a safe food production systemFootnote 6 and they do look to the Government for information on food safetyFootnote 7. The Government has taken a number of steps to provide Canadians, particularly those at a higher risk, with the information and tools they need to protect themselves from a potential foodborne illness.
Food Safety Portal and Social Media Tools
With the rise of social and electronic media use, Canadians expect to get information more quickly and efficiently. In February 2010, the Government of Canada launched www.foodsafety.gc.ca, an online one-stop food safety portal that provides Canadians with access to important health and food safety information through social media tools, including RSS feeds, widgets, Facebook, YouTube and mobile phone applications.
The Portal provides a broad range of food safety information from CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC, including:
- news on illness outbreaks, food recalls and allergy alerts;
- safe food handling and preparation tips;
- food label information; and
- foodborne illness facts.
Through the web Portal, Canadians can report a food safety concern, ask a question, or sign up to receive food recall alerts by email. The website features videos on safe food handling and an interactive guide to purchasing and preparing food safely at the grocery store and at home. Furthermore, since everyone plays a role in food safety, it describes how consumers, government and industry can work together to keep our food safe.
From the Food Safety Portal, Canadians can link to the Healthy Canadians Facebook page, a hub for health-related campaigns that provides a range of information and tips, including on food safety. Web content and web interactive tools were also developed to help all consumers learn about safe food handling practices in the home and in the grocery store.
A food recall is an action by a manufacturer, importer, distributor or retailer to remove unsafe food products from the market to help protect the public. CFIA manages about 235 food recalls each year.
CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC use Twitter to broadcast and "re-tweet" information on food safety issues and recalls. There are currently over 18,500 combined followers of the Health Canada, CFIA and PHAC Twitter accounts, including representatives from the media, health organizations, consumer groups and cooking/food allergy bloggers. In February 2010, CFIA developed an RSS feed and a food recall widget to automate the distribution of food recall and allergy alert notices directly to subscribers. In addition, a Government of Canada Recalls and Safety Alerts web-based mobile application was launched in late 2010 to publish food safety warnings.
In February 2011, CFIA began issuing allergy alerts to email notification service subscribers. This service is part of CFIA's ongoing commitment to deliver timely recall information to Canadians so that they can make informed food choices. CFIA now has 47,500 subscribers to the recall-and-allergy-alert email notification service.
CFIA Consumer Centre
As recommended by the Weatherill Report, CFIA has enhanced its public profile to increase awareness of the Agency's mandate.
From the Food Safety Portal, visitors can link to the Consumer Centre section of the CFIA website. This section was expanded in November 2009 in order to explain the roles that consumers, government and industry play in food safety, and to provide more information on important food safety issues.
By enhancing CFIA's public profile, Canadians are better informed of the Agency's responsibilities, operational procedures and partnerships. In addition, the Agency can now quickly and efficiently provide information to Canadians on a wide range of issues, including food safety risks and the roles of industry and consumers in keeping food safe and reducing the risk of foodborne illness. As a result, Canadians can feel more confident in the safety of their food.
Health Canada: Reaching out to At-Risk Canadians
While anyone can get sick from bacteria in food, certain groups are at a much higher risk of serious, life-threatening complications. It is particularly important that older adults, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems be aware of food safety risks and the steps they can take to protect themselves.
In March 2010, Health Canada launched the three-year outreach campaign, Safe Food Handling, aimed at those populations that are at greater risk of complications from foodborne illness. The campaign is tailored specifically for each audience and is designed to provide them with the information they need to protect themselves.
Educational resources were developed for each at-risk group and were made available in both printed and electronic formats. Outreach activities focused on raising awareness of the safe food handling messages through radio, print and web content, and interactive tools. Magazine advertising alone reached more than 12 million consumers.
- articles and print ads in 12 targeted publications and magazines;
- distribution of booklets and posters to health professionals, family doctors, disease associations and clinics;
- web advertising on health websites;
- a strategic alliance with Thyme Maternity for point-of-purchase distribution of more than 190,000 booklets targeted to pregnant women, and tailored information in their in-store publication; and
- insertion of 400,000 brochures, targeted to adults over 60, in Old Age Security mailings and radio ads on stations favoured by an older demographic.
Videos on safe food handling for pregnant women, people over 60 and people with weakened immune systems are available on Health Canada's YouTube channel.
The objective of Health Canada's risk communication and marketing strategies is to ensure that vulnerable populations and other Canadians have the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. In these communication efforts, Health Canada has now developed clearer communications with the Canadian public about listeriosis, especially for at-risk populations. Preliminary assessment of these efforts indicates that communication has been effective and that consumers are better equipped to take preventive action.
Raising Awareness of Caregivers
Many Canadians at greatest risk from listeriosis do not cook their own food because they live in long-term care facilities, are being treated in hospitals, or have services or family members that prepare food for them so that they can live in their own homes. In such cases, it is not enough to raise the awareness of those who are at greater risk (older adults, pregnant women and the immuno-compromised). Their caregivers also need to be aware of the precautions they should take.
With this goal in mind, FPT governments have worked together to develop an important new resource through the Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health. The document, Prevention of Listeriosis: Considerations for Development of Public Health Messages, was made available to the provinces and territories in July 2010 to provide advice on creating communication messages within each jurisdiction. This document offers basic information on listeriosis, and provides prevention advice for the general public, for vulnerable populations and for food service providers serving food to these populations.
Communication – Managing Risks:
"Communication during a food safety incident is becoming increasingly habitual as risks are managed and conveyed. While Ms. Weatherill's recommendations have helped establish the governance and the mechanisms facilitating the communication, the benefits of timely and targeted communication when managing an outbreak go beyond managing the risk itself; they include the creation of a culture of understanding about food safety. Unrelenting effort is required to effectively inform the public about persistent and emerging risks and the action being taken to address them."
Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada
CFIA: Transparency Initiatives
The Government of Canada is committed to providing consumers with information on the enforcement actions being taken to ensure that the food industry meets federal food safety requirements.
On March 16, 2011, CFIA announced that it would begin publishing information about the compliance and enforcement activities it undertakes to protect the safety of the Canadian food supply, as well as to protect animal and plant health.
On its website, CFIA now publishes information on:
- food imports that have been refused entry into Canada;
- federally registered food establishments whose licences have been suspended, cancelled or reinstated;
- organics certificates that have been revoked;
- notices of violations with warnings and penalties, including identifying repeat offenders of animal transport regulations;
- prosecution bulletins; and
- food products that have been seized, detained or disposed of.
The Weatherill Report recommends that CFIA disclose to the public and food safety partners the results of investigations and corrective actions taken where human deaths or serious illnesses occur. In response, the Agency has gone beyond this recommendation to give much more information to Canadians.
When a serious foodborne illness is traced back to an Agency-regulated food production establishment, CFIA uses its website to ensure that Canadians continue to be informed once an investigation into the event has been concluded. Investigation reports posted online include a summary of the event, a review of the affected establishment, the results of the investigation and a summary of the corrective actions taken by the establishment operators.
These actions have made CFIA more transparent by informing consumers and other stakeholders of its regulatory activities and decisions. Making this information public also promotes public confidence in the federal government's enforcement actions and leads to informed consumer choices.
"To protect the safety of food in the modern era requires greater familiarity with current food production and distribution systems. Transparency in compliance and performance activities and measures on the part of national and international organizations, trading partners and industry will provide consumers with timely, valuable and reliable information to guide their decision making and to further improve the safety of food in Canada".
Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada
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