Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians
Improving Emergency Response
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A key finding of the Weatherill Report was that a sense of urgency appeared to be lacking as the outlines of the outbreak in question were taking shape. For example, the unavailability of certain information and personnel considerably delayed the launching of a concerted response. Opinions differed as to the appropriate moment to issue warnings to the public, and even after the seriousness of the situation was realized, emergency centres were not immediately activated.
In response to these findings, the Government has taken steps to identify staff who can provide additional support during foodborne illness outbreaks. In addition, PHAC has completely revised and modernized the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP), which remains the Government's blueprint for managing such outbreaks. Two other key protocols have been developed: the Food Safety Communications Protocol, which governs communications during an outbreak; and the Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan (FI ERP), which is used when a standard response to the outbreak event is insufficient and extraordinary measures are called for. The Government has also worked to improve governance of multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks by clarifying accountability and ensuring coordination of action among all responsible federal partners.
The Independent Investigator observed that most organizations involved in the response to the 2008 outbreak had limited pre-planned capacity for managing the surge in demand for expertise and resulting laboratory testing.
Federal surge capacity is being upgraded through training, laboratory certification and partnership among PHAC, Health Canada and CFIA. PHAC has also cross-trained staff from across its various program areas to provide surge capacity to PulseNet Canada technical staff when needed. PHAC provides personnel and capital resources to the provinces and territories, including the sharing of full-time staff and laboratory and informatics equipment as required.
Public Health Reserve
PHAC has developed and is testing a pilot model of a Public Health Reserve (PHR) of epidemiologists external to the Health Portfolio to bolster capacity during foodborne illness outbreaks and other public health events. A permanent PHR may also include other public health professionals. PHAC has also identified a roster of internal human resources who could support response activities. An inventory of skill sets required for surveillance and outbreak response was developed and validated, and a gap analysis was undertaken. The results informed the scope of the pilot project and the development of a training strategy. A reserve framework has been established in consultation with internal and external public health experts, and internal partners have been engaged to support strategic development and implementation.
The PHR pilot model is currently being tested and assessed through various exercises and training events. A number of pilot participants were recruited and have attended their first training event. Feedback from participants was positive and additional training events and exercises are being planned in fall/winter 2011-12 to further prepare them for response activities.
Work is under way to identify a governance/administrative structure for the establishment of a PHR. In addition, development of a reserve database application is under way. This database will be used for collecting and extracting information about external resources to support epidemiology surge capacity. The results of assessment activities will be completed by March 31, 2012, and will inform the decision on the feasibility and scope of a permanent PHR.
Outbreak Coordination and Communication
The Importance of Protocols
When outbreaks occur, food safety partners from different levels of government work together to respond and to keep Canadians informed so that they can make appropriate choices to protect their health. There are many questions that must be addressed to collaborate effectively: How do public health officials in the provinces and territories inform the federal government about an outbreak? When does PHAC take the lead in coordinating the outbreak investigation and response? Who should be telling Canadians about food safety risks or outbreaks happening across the country? How do officials ensure that the messages provided to Canadians are consistent and communicated effectively?
In order to address these questions, food safety partners have developed protocols that guide how they work together, how they carry out their responsibilities in various situations, and how they communicate important information to the general public, including those most vulnerable to serious illness.
Three key protocols are in place:
- The Foodborne Illness Outbreak Protocol (FIORP), last updated in June 2010, provides guidance on how federal, provincial and territorial partners work together during a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak, and establishes clear lines of communication so that vital information is shared in a timely, consistent manner to protect the health of Canadians.
- The Food Safety Communications Protocol is used by the federal health and food safety partners: PHAC, Health Canada and CFIA. It guides collaboration among communications staff in partner organizations and assists in providing clear, consistent and helpful information to Canadians.
- The Health Portfolio Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan (FI ERP) guides the response to an extraordinary situation when normal food safety procedures are insufficient and resource capacity is exceeded. The Plan builds on the FIORP (2010) and uses an incident management structure and a set of emergency response support systems within the PHAC Emergency Operations Centre to manage the outbreak.
Each of these protocols is reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that they are up to date. In the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, they are relied upon to help the Government of Canada and its food safety partners respond and communicate efficiently and effectively.
Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol
The Independent Investigator made a number of recommendations aimed at improving how the Government manages foodborne illness outbreaks. A key recommendation was that PHAC should revise and modernize the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP), which guides the management of multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks in Canada.
A multi-jurisdictional outbreak of foodborne illness is one that occurs in more than one province or territory, or occurs in Canada and involves another country or countries, or multiple agencies at all levels of government. The investigation of, and response to, multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks in Canada may involve several organizations at multiple levels of government with complementary responsibilities. The FIORP is a long-standing protocol designed to guide the coordination of roles and responsibilities during such an outbreak.
Following the 2008 outbreak, PHAC led the process to revise the FIORP in consultation with Health Canada, CFIA, and provincial and territorial counterparts, with the objective of enhancing collaboration and overall effectiveness of the response to multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks. The FIORP (2010) was approved by FPT deputy ministers of health and agriculture in June 2010.
The FIORP (2010) clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of all partners involved in responding to a foodborne illness outbreak. It establishes PHAC as the lead agency in coordinating the investigation and response in Canada during a multi-jurisdictional outbreak. It also establishes PHAC as the usual first point of contact for partners wishing to notify the federal government of issues related to foodborne illness outbreaks, or requesting content expertise/support.
While PHAC assumes the lead coordination role, responsibility for the outbreak investigation is spread across a number of separate agencies according to mandate. For example, within the Government of Canada, CFIA leads the food safety investigation, PHAC leads the epidemiological investigation and Health Canada leads the health risk assessment process that guides risk-management decisions. Each partner participating in an outbreak investigation retains its responsibilities for actions and activities consistent with its mandate.
PHAC conducted exercises of the revised FIORP (2010) with each province and territory from January to April 2011. Representatives from PHAC, CFIA and Health Canada participated with each province and territory in exercises that were tailored to address their individual needs. These exercises included testing for internal communication gaps, assisting with knowledge development and strengthening networks among communications partners.
Feedback on these exercises has been very positive: those who participated had increased confidence in working with the FIORP and a better understanding of everyone's roles and responsibilities. To complete the testing process, PHAC will coordinate a national exercise of the FIORP (2010) with all partners by the end of March 2012.
The Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP ) Bilateral Exercises
The FIORP was collectively developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), in consultation with provincial and territorial counterparts. It guides how these partners work together when faced with an outbreak of foodborne illness that affects more than one province or territory, or occurs in Canada and involves another country or countries. The 2010 update of the FIORP encompasses a number of new roles and responsibilities, as well as new information exchange and communication processes.
How do we help to ensure that all these partners know their roles and responsibilities when we are faced with such an outbreak?
Between January and April of 2011, PHAC led bilateral training exercises on the revised protocol with each of the 13 provinces and territories.
Provincial and territorial health partners, local governments, Health Canada and CFIA participated in the exercises.
PHAC initiated 13 working groups in the fall of 2010 to begin planning for exercise scenarios that would best meet the needs of each of the groups. PHAC and the provinces and territories created exercises based on the type of outbreak to which a region could be called upon to respond, from an outbreak of Hepatitis A in Nova Scotia blueberries to trichinosis in game meat in the North.
From the first exercise in Regina, Saskatchewan, to the final one in Montréal, Quebec, more than 640 participants worked through scenarios that increased their knowledge of the roles, responsibilities and processes of the many partners involved in a response to a foodborne illness outbreak. The participants represented the broad spectrum of roles typically involved in a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak investigation and included medical officers of health, program managers and directors, public health inspectors, environmental health officers, veterinarians, food safety specialists, epidemiologists, public health nurses, communications staff, microbiologists and laboratory technologists.
In addition to these local and provincial/territorial-level participants, federal representatives from PHAC (Outbreak Management Division, National Microbiology Laboratory and Communications Directorate representatives), CFIA (Office of Food Safety and Recall) and Health Canada (First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and the Bureau of Microbial Hazards) were in attendance during the exercises as participants and observers.
When a foodborne illness outbreak is identified, there is a clear public interest in sharing information among partners. A key element of the FIORP (2010) is the inclusion of provisions for the sharing of information, including epidemiological data, as needed to identify and investigate the foodborne illness outbreak at its source, subject to applicable laws governing the sharing of information.
The Outbreak Investigation Coordination Committee (OICC), established pursuant to the FIORP, serves as the main forum for information sharing and interpretation, clarification of roles and responsibilities, establishment of response priorities, and the development of communications strategies related to an actual or suspected foodborne illness outbreak. Once the presence of a potential multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak requiring a collaborative and coordinated investigation is confirmed, the OICC is activated.
The updated communications section of the FIORP (2010) includes clearer language and guidance for improved coordination of public communications among FPT partners. This, along with the exercises held with each province and territory, has resulted in a clearer understanding of PHAC's role as coordinator of the investigation and response during a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak; of how PHAC Communications collaborates with its federal and provincial/territorial partners; and of how the Outbreak Communications Team (OCT) works as part of the OICC. Communications staff from the partners involved in the outbreak will be integrated into the OICC when it is established to share information about the outbreak.
When the need for public communications is established within the OICC, communications staff from the lead organizations convene a teleconference with their counterparts in other involved organizations to establish an OCT.
The OCT is responsible for developing, in collaboration with the OICC, coordinated plans and messaging for communicating with the public and those at greater risk.
As a result, public communications are better coordinated, and processes to provide information to vulnerable populations most at risk of severe illness are clearer.
Overall, the revision of the FIORP and subsequent exercises to test it have resulted in an increased understanding of how partners work together at all levels of government and among senior officials in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, and have laid the foundation for a more coordinated response to future outbreaks.
Also included in the FIORP (2010) is an appendix to guide the post-outbreak review discussion among the partners involved in the outbreak response. The post-outbreak review includes information such as confirmation of the outbreak's cause, proposed measures to prevent recurrence, assessment of the effectiveness of outbreak control measures, and evaluation of the utilized processes and methods. Several post-outbreak reviews have been conducted using the process established in the FIORP since it was finalized in June 2010. Results of post-outbreak reviews will be used to evaluate the FIORP and to make any changes to improve the Protocol.
"Protocols that clearly lay out roles, responsibilities and lines of communication are essential when multiple jurisdictions are involved in managing a foodborne illness outbreak."
"Provinces and territories have worked with the federal government to make improvements to the plan to manage multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks. This strong collaboration has better prepared us to respond effectively and rapidly in the event of an outbreak."
Dr. Arlene King, Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario
Food Safety Communications Protocol
Having recognized the need to establish guidelines for improving communication with Canadians during an outbreak of foodborne illness, PHAC worked with Health Canada and CFIA to produce the Food Safety Communications Protocol, which was finalized in January 2010. The Protocol clarifies the roles and responsibilities within the federal family for joint communications on food safety issues that involve the three federal partners. It is based on risk communications principles that are consistent with the Health Canada/PHAC Health Portfolio Risk Communications Framework.
The Communications Protocol includes an appendix named "Foodborne Incident Federal Risk Management Scenarios," which describes some of the scenarios that might evolve during a food contamination event or a foodborne illness outbreak. These scenarios guide federal action among CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC, and provide advice on communication to the public for each situation. The result is a more effective process to ensure that Canadians receive clear and consistent messages about how to protect themselves and their loved ones against illness.
In November 2010 and February 2011, PHAC, Health Canada and CFIA piloted a tabletop exercise and training program to test understanding of the Communications Protocol. These exercises were designed to raise awareness of the Protocol, discuss how to implement the Protocol, and build communications surge capacity within the three organizations to respond effectively to food safety issues and emergencies.
Public Health Agency of Canada: Risk Communications Strategy
While Health Canada provides food safety prevention advice to Canadians, PHAC is responsible for providing Canadians, including those most at risk for serious illness, with the information that they need to protect themselves and their families during a foodborne illness outbreak.
PHAC continues to work with partners in the provinces and territories to develop food safety messages explaining the protective measures the public can take during a national foodborne illness outbreak. As part of this effort, PHAC has developed a risk communications strategy aimed at the general public and at medically and functionally vulnerable groups such as older adults, pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems and those living in isolated communities.
The PHAC Risk Communications Strategy includes activities that the Agency can implement immediately, should a national foodborne illness outbreak occur. It ensures that PHAC is prepared well in advance to communicate with the public, both before and during a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak, by providing the Agency with communication tools and approaches for communication purposes. Prior to a foodborne illness event, the Strategy builds communications capacity by training staff in the use of the federal Communications Protocol, and by supporting Health Canada and CFIA's risk communications work. During a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak, PHAC will use these communication processes and draw from pre-tested messages to help inform Canadians about how to protect themselves. In the wake of a foodborne illness outbreak, PHAC will explain to the public what steps were taken to protect Canadians, and what lessons were learned to improve its methods for preventing, managing and responding to foodborne illness outbreaks.
Risk Communications Strategy on Food Safety
During a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) must communicate quickly and effectively to the Canadian public in order to provide them with the information they need to protect themselves.
Although it is important that prompt and clear communication reaches everyone during a foodborne illness outbreak, it is even more important to reach those most susceptible to serious health complications. These groups include older adults, pregnant women, young children, those with compromised immune systems and those who live in remote communities with limited access to medical care.
To better prepare itself for when such an outbreak occurs, PHAC developed and has begun implementing a comprehensive Risk Communications Strategy for communicating during a national foodborne illness outbreak.
This Strategy involves stakeholders as the focal point. Messages will be aimed at parents of young children, vulnerable populations and media and public health professionals, as well as the general public. The Strategy is supported by tools and tactics adapted specifically to these groups. Tools include plain language fact sheets, media events, print and radio advertisements, webcasts and video clips.
The Strategy is evidence-based. Its objectives, approaches, activities, tools and products are all based on the needs of stakeholders, which are measured by research, including public opinion research and focus testing of messages.
The Strategy includes a measure of scalability. Flexible plans of varying degrees can be put into place according to the nature and severity of the outbreak.
Many elements of the plan are well under way. The next time an outbreak occurs that requires PHAC to inform Canadians how to best protect themselves from illness, the Agency will be well prepared to do so quickly and effectively.
PHAC has a lead role in communicating to the public during multi-jurisdictional outbreaks. Its performance of that role during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 raised the public profile of the Agency and its Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO). PHAC has built on that public awareness by distributing information about its mandate during a foodborne illness outbreak through the Government of Canada's Food Safety Portal. As a result of this increased awareness and the work to improve communication to the public, the CPHO is well positioned as chief spokesperson to provide information to Canadians on how they can protect themselves during a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak.
Dr. David Butler-Jones, Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO): Food Safety Qs&As
Q: As CPHO, what is your role when it comes to foodborne illness?
My primary role as CPHO for the Government of Canada is to focus on protecting the health of Canadians. At the Public Health Agency of Canada we coordinate with our partners within the federal family, across Canada and internationally, to prevent, investigate and respond to these illnesses and react to foodborne illness outbreaks. When an outbreak does occur, I lead communications to Canadians, providing them with the information they need to protect themselves and their families. We are part of a food safety system that works collaboratively to prevent foodborne illness, beginning at the farm level and extending until the food reaches our plates. We are continually assessing our efforts and making improvements to the food safety system for all Canadians.
Q: What role does PHAC play in food safety?
The Agency focuses on human illness by providing laboratory reference services; conducting surveillance for foodborne disease; identifying risks; and providing consultation, content expertise, coordination and public health capacity during outbreaks. In particular, the Agency leads the coordination of the investigation and response and of communications in Canada during multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks. It is the main liaison with international public health counterparts and the national focal point for the International Health Regulations. The Agency also works with its partners in food safety at all levels of government to identify sources of illness, to prevent and control disease and to advocate for improved food safety and best practices for food handling.
Q: What's the most important thing for people to know when there is a foodborne illness outbreak going on around them?
Most of us will not get sick as a result of a foodborne illness outbreak. We all have some control over the safety of our food, and it is important to remember that there are many things each of us can do to reduce the risk of becoming ill. We can learn about safe food handling and storage practices and follow the simple precautions—clean, chill, separate and cook (www.foodsafety.gc.ca)—to reduce the risk of foodborne diseases and to protect ourselves and others. However, when an outbreak does occur, the Agency is committed to providing timely information that Canadians can use to protect themselves.
Q: Will we ever face another outbreak like the listeriosis outbreak of 2008?
We cannot fully prevent outbreaks from occurring, but we can work to minimize the risk and to ensure that we are as well prepared as possible, should one occur. We have worked with our food safety partners since the 2008 listeriosis outbreak to improve our ability to detect and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks and to improve our capacity to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. We will continue to make improvements to ensure that we are well prepared to protect the health of Canadians.
Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan
As noted above, multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks are normally guided by the FIORP (2010), which provides direction on how FPT partners work together under these circumstances.
Emergencies are those extraordinary situations that require action beyond normal procedures, and require additional resources to respond to the scope and/or impact of the event. Foodborne illness emergencies occur rarely, but can have far-reaching implications, as was the case during the 2011 E. coli event in Germany linked to sprouts.
For those occasions when a foodborne illness outbreak requires a response beyond the scope of the FIORP, PHAC and Health Canada have developed the Foodborne Illness Emergency Response Plan (FI ERP), which is included as an appendix to the Health Portfolio Emergency Response Plan (HP ERP).
An emergency response that uses the FI ERP is invoked when the triggers for the FIORP are activated and, in addition, the event is considered severe or involves an unusual agent or progression. The FI ERP designates PHAC as the lead responding agency at both the national and federal level. It includes detailed information on the activation of the Plan and on the eight-phase process that is used to respond to the emergency.
The FI ERP makes use of an incident command structure known as an incident management system (IMS). The IMS is an operational framework for emergency response. The system facilitates communication, response activities and co-operation within and between organizations. The FI ERP prescribes how the various partners will be engaged with its IMS, should the plan be implemented for a foodborne illness emergency response.
The FI ERP IMS structure is based on that of the Health Portfolio Emergency Operations Centre (HPEOC). It has been customized to show how Health Portfolio resources will be organized in the HPEOC to support the response to a foodborne illness emergency. The flexibility and scalability of the structure are specified according to the multitude of partners, roles and possible scenarios.
The IMS includes links to the FIORP OICC, which coordinates FPT activities directly related to outbreak response during the emergency. The IMS also includes a high-level link between a representative provincial/territorial group and the Health Portfolio Executive Group in order to facilitate senior-level FPT decision making during a foodborne illness emergency. IMS liaison officers will ensure appropriate communication with the regional offices, CFIA and other government departments.
The FI ERP was endorsed by the Health Portfolio Joint Emergency Preparedness Committee in June 2011. The HP ERP and its appendices support the Government of Canada's all-hazards Federal Emergency Response Plan. Testing and validation of the FI ERP will take place as part of the national exercise of the FIORP (2010) by the end of March 2012, to ensure all federal partners are aware of the FI ERP and trained with respect to its components in the case of a foodborne illness emergency.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Evaluation: Interfaces with Partners
An evaluation was conducted on the design and effectiveness of CFIA's interfaces with other federal departments and with other jurisdictions during food safety incidents over a two-year period (2009-11). Ms. Weatherill identified opportunities to strengthen these interfaces, especially in relation to food safety investigations and emergency response.
Overall, the data gathered through the course of the evaluation suggests that the interdepartmental and inter-jurisdictional ability to manage and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks has been significantly strengthened since the release of the Weatherill Report. The evidence indicates that CFIA, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the provinces and territories have invested significant time and effort in improving the design and effectiveness of their interdepartmental and inter-jurisdictional interfaces. From CFIA's perspective, improvements include clarified roles and responsibilities, better executed processes and procedures, and enhanced coordination, communication, and response during emergency management of foodborne illness incidents.
However, there are opportunities for continued improvement. The provinces and territories would benefit from ongoing guidance to bring more consistency when responding to multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness incidents. Provincial and federal laboratories would benefit from better sharing of information on new methods and technologies.
The results of this evaluation are helping CFIA to further improve its performance in working with its food safety partners.
In her report, the Independent Investigator observed that management of the listeriosis outbreak represented a significant challenge to the multiple jurisdictions (federal, provincial and municipal) and the various parts of the federal government that were involved. In order to better manage outbreaks of foodborne illness, CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC have established internal governance mechanisms to streamline information sharing.
Special Committee of Deputy Heads
In July 2009, the Clerk of the Privy Council asked the Deputy Minister of AAFC to chair a committee of Deputy Heads from CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC. The Special Committee of Deputy Heads (SCDH) was formed to ensure that all food safety partners are better positioned to share information and provide a more cohesive and forward-looking approach to food safety. The President of CFIA, the Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada, the Deputy Minister of Health Canada and PHAC's Chief Public Health Officer meet on a regular basis and are supported by assistant deputy minister– and director general–level committees, as well as a full-time secretariat at AAFC. A six-month report was provided to the Clerk in March 2010, and three interim progress reports have been released and made available to Canadians through the Food Safety Portal. The work of this committee has improved coordination and collaboration among federal departments and agencies that have responsibilities in Canada's food safety system. This structure has served to increase the knowledge and understanding of each partner's mandate, and partners are much better positioned to share information and collaborate in response to potential foodborne illness outbreaks.
Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada
CFIA has completed a review of its organizational structure and decision-making processes, and has made improvements to its governance structure. On May 25, 2010, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Canada's first Chief Food Safety Officer (CFSO), whose role is to bring a more integrative approach to achieving CFIA's food safety objectives. The appointment of a CFSO for Canada acknowledges the rapid evolution of food production systems, and is symbolic of the heights that food security and safety issues have attained on the world stage. The CFSO works with public and private sector partners to identify emerging trends and opportunities, actively engages with consumers, and incorporates best practices for managing and reporting food safety systems.
Office of Food Safety and Recall
In June 2010, CFIA completed a review of governance in relation to the Office of Food Safety and Recall (OFSR) and implemented measures to enhance accountability for the work of the Office. As a result, the OFSR reports directly to the Vice-President of Operations. The Office of the President and senior management are made aware of emerging food safety issues through daily issues briefings. In the case of high-profile or complex food safety investigations, CFIA's CFSO may convene a senior-level committee to discuss the issue, and provide collective, strategic direction relating to the Agency's response. This new governance structure is more streamlined and ensures early engagement by senior management on food safety issues. Additionally, the OFSR has been confirmed as the primary point of contact with Health Canada during a food safety investigation.
In the event of a national food emergency or significant food safety issue, all necessary CFIA resources are dedicated to managing the response. In addition, CFIA can activate an incident command structure (ICS) with the Incident Commander as the primary point of contact with federal partners, including Health Canada and PHAC. ICS is an international model for the command, control and coordination of a response to an emergency or significant food safety issue. It combines facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure.
Taken together, these improvements allow CFIA to better coordinate food safety investigations and food emergencies, support Health Canada in conducting health risk assessments and ultimately enable the Agency to better protect the health of Canadians by responding more effectively to food safety issues.
Public Health Agency of Canada Appoints Senior Officials
Since the 2008 listeriosis outbreak, PHAC has made two senior appointments to increase its capacity for flexible and timely responses to public health threats.
In order to support the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) in his role as the lead public health professional for the Government of Canada, an Executive Vice-President/Chief Operating Officer (Associate Deputy Minister) was appointed in September 2009. The responsibilities associated with the new position include providing leadership on all matters related to central agencies (Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat, Department of Finance); leading and assuring high-quality PHAC planning, execution, reporting and accountability; and assuring that PHAC has robust emergency preparedness and response capability. Since May 2010, there is now a focal point at a senior level for emergency management in PHAC - an Assistant Deputy Minister, Emergency Management and Corporate Affairs.
As part of the process of making these changes, roles and responsibilities within PHAC have been clarified. This has in turn improved how information is shared both internally and with PHAC's food safety partners to ensure timely, informed decision making by officials.
Strengthened Legislation and Regulations
Health Canada and CFIA have worked together to review the five Canadian food statutes—the food provisions of the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Fish Inspection Act and the Canada Agricultural Products Act. Some improvements could be made to strengthen food safety, for example, by enhancing protections against willful contamination of food. As well, some provisions could be updated and others simplified, which would further encourage innovation and improve the competitive position of food producers and processors, while maintaining food safety. Therefore, the Government is developing a new food safety bill and will engage stakeholders on the elements of possible new food safety legislation.
Engagement and Consultation with Stakeholders
Consultation Strategy and Stakeholder Engagement
The Independent Investigator recommended that CFIA create a formal and transparent consultation strategy that defines its required engagement with stakeholders such as industry, consumers, health professionals and the public health community, as well as other federal departments and agencies. CFIA has conducted an evaluation of the relevance and performance of its stakeholder consultation processes over a five-year period (2006-11). The work includes an assessment of CFIA's responsiveness to the Investigator's recommendation.
Findings indicate a continued need for stakeholder consultation. As a regulatory agency, CFIA is required to consult with stakeholders who may be affected by regulations, policies and programs. Their involvement enables the Agency to fulfill its legislative mandate, develop effective policy, design and deliver programs, and build public trust and commitment. In support of this role—and in direct response to the Investigator's recommendation—CFIA recently developed a Consultation Policy and Framework outlining a common process to guide the conduct of consultations. The draft Consultation Policy and Framework document was posted on the CFIA website and the "Consulting with Canadians" website on May 18, 2011, for a 30-day consultation. Submitted comments are currently being considered, and the document will be amended accordingly.
Evaluation findings indicate that CFIA has a strong history and culture of consultation, with significant skills and expertise. Responsibility for the design and conduct of consultation is dispersed within CFIA, allowing for flexibility in approach, responsiveness and the application of appropriate technical expertise. The Agency is meeting the policy goals of informing stakeholders and gathering input. Stakeholders generally view CFIA's consultations as open, meaningful and balanced, and they recognize their own influence in regulatory, policy and program development. However, the evaluation found that the Agency could provide more feedback to stakeholders in a timelier manner and that its consultations could be made more visible. CFIA is considering the results of this evaluation in order to improve its stakeholder consultations.
As a partner in food safety, CFIA has worked to bring the Investigator's recommendations to the attention of all federally registered meat processing establishments. These establishments received a letter dated March 5, 2010, outlining the industry-specific recommendations in the Weatherill Report, underlining their food safety responsibilities and the obligation of industry to report food safety threats as required under the Meat Inspection Act and its regulations.
CFIA also engages regularly with the food industry to discuss food safety issues, including the Weatherill Report recommendations.
Culture of Commitment:
"I believe that this final report is not the scorecard stating that the recommendations of Ms. Weatherill are implemented and the job is done, but in fact it is an acknowledgement of a reinvigorated culture of commitment to food safety. I find evidence of this culture of commitment in stakeholders' activities as they continuously seek ways to strengthen the food safety system—it is our individual and collective moral obligation."
Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Food Safety Officer for Canada
The Meat Processing Industry Responds
The Weatherill Report makes eight recommendations that are specific to the meat processing industry. Canada's meat industry agrees with all eight recommendations and has taken action to implement them.
Ms. Weatherill states that the chief executive officers (CEOs) and senior management of all meat processors should accept oversight responsibility for ensuring that food safety is fully embedded in every level of their business. As a result, senior managers responsible for quality assurance have had their job descriptions and titles updated to emphasize the importance of food safety, and now most of them report directly to their CEOs. More than ever, meat processing facilities employ highly qualified food science and microbiology experts to manage their food safety programs, and many firms have PhDs and veterinarians on staff.
CEOs and senior management are also asked to ensure effective design and active promotion of all aspects of food safety consistent with their food safety plans and to update their food safety plans regularly to ensure ongoing attention to pathogen control. All food safety Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans are reassessed at least once a year. The importance of these plans is embedded in company culture. Meat industry experts have pooled their extensive knowledge to develop and share detailed guidance on the best practices for control of Listeria that all ready-to-eat meat processing companies can implement.
Companies have also invested in upgrading their equipment and reformulating their products to include approved antimicrobial substances that have proven highly effective against the growth of Listeria. Since 2008, seven Canadian meat processing companies have installed high-pressure processing systems to provide an additional barrier against potential contamination of their finished products by Listeria and other harmful bacteria.
To meet the recommendation that all meat processors should ensure that new and existing equipment is and remains appropriate for the intended use, the industry has set up a program of sanitation, inspection, disassembly and preventive maintenance for each piece of equipment. Companies have also invested heavily in new meat slicers and packaging equipment that are easier to clean and sanitize. Upgrading of equipment has resulted in not only better food safety performance but also improved productivity and longer product shelf life.
Ms. Weatherill notes that sanitation methods should be validated and implemented by meat processors in consultation with the equipment manufacturer. Processors ensure that each new piece of equipment is carefully inspected during installation; that training on dismantling and sanitation procedures is provided by the manufacturer; and that the meat-processing industry co-operates with equipment manufacturers on sanitation guidelines. The sector has developed effective validated procedures to sanitize equipment that is difficult to clean.
Another recommendation calls on all federally registered meat processors to disclose any threat to food safety to CFIA inspectors in a timely manner, not waiting for requests for information, and ensuring that inspectors have all the information they require. The meat industry discloses such threats to CFIA staff, and works with them to clearly understand the data presented and to draw accurate conclusions from the information.
Two of the recommendations are aimed not at meat processors but at equipment manufacturers, asking them to emphasize in their instructions to users the necessity of controlling the risk of pathogens, and to accept responsibility for the sanitary design of the equipment used by industry. Canada's meat industry views equipment manufacturers as partners in food safety and has witnessed a very high level of awareness and activity on the part of the equipment manufacturers in developing "best in class" equipment for pathogen control.
Canadian Meat Council
Agri-Subcommittee on Food Safety
AAFC, in collaboration with the food industry, established the Agri-Subcommittee on Food Safety in 2010. The purpose of the ASFS, which includes members from CFIA, Health Canada and PHAC, is to strengthen relationships among all federal food safety partners and the food industry, to ensure a common understanding of the roles and responsibilities of all partners, and to contribute to the continuous improvement of food safety policies and standards. During each meeting, industry and government members share information on new food safety developments in their sector or organization. The Subcommittee, which has met six times since June 2010, has also developed an industry-government work plan that takes into account key recommendations from the Weatherill Report.
"Meeting and exceeding our high food safety standards is vital to the food industry. We all have a responsibility to provide Canadians and our customers throughout the world with safe, high-quality food. Through the ASFS, we're fostering an enhanced level of dialogue between industry and government. The Subcommittee has watched with interest the progress made by federal partners in implementing the recommendations of the Weatherill Report. Industry members from the meat processing sector have also reported on how their sector has responded to the recommendations for which they are responsible.
Representatives from the major agricultural sectors participate and provide regular updates on the work they do to ensure that Canada is a world leader in food safety. Industry members regularly emphasize that food safety is viewed as a non-competitive area where information on new procedures and new technology are shared openly among participants for the benefit of all.
More broadly, subcommittee members have learned about proactive industry initiatives affecting food safety. Industry working with industry, and industry working with government, are key to effective and functional programs. We are all in this together and committed to Canada being a world leader in food safety."
Mr. Dennis Laycraft, Industry Co-Chair of the Agri-Subcommittee on Food Safety (ASFS) and Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association
Expert Advisory Committee
CFIA has established an Expert Advisory Committee (EAC) to provide the Agency with objective and technical advice on key issues related to its food, animal health and plant core business lines. Seven committee members have been selected based on their expertise, experience and knowledge in areas relevant to CFIA's mandate. Senior officials from AAFC, Health Canada and PHAC are also represented as committee members. The first meeting of the EAC took place in June 2011. EAC members were well engaged as they discussed and informed the development of guidance documents for the Agency's work.
Ministerial Advisory Board
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has established the Ministerial Advisory Board, composed of six highly qualified advisors from the food, animal and plant health sectors. The Ministerial Advisory Board will advise the Minister on a broad range of issues that are relevant to CFIA activities, as is consistent with the Minister's responsibility for the Agency's overall direction.
Consumer Association Roundtable
In December 2010, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched a new roundtable focused on giving consumers an additional opportunity to raise concerns and discuss ways to further improve Canada's food safety system.
Members of the Roundtable discuss and provide input regarding food safety and other topics related to CFIA priorities, policies, programs and services that would benefit from consumer input.
The Consumer Association Roundtable is chaired by Canada's Chief Food Safety Officer and Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Brian Evans.
The Roundtable meets face to face at least twice a year and will also meet as required when topics of concern arise. The first three Consumer Association Roundtable meetings were held in December 2010, June 2011 and October 2011.
Eight core consumer associations with national or significant regional representation make up the Roundtable. Additional participants may be included, depending on the subject of the meeting. Current members of the Consumer Association Roundtable are:
- Anaphylaxis Canada;
- Association québécoise des allergies alimentaires;
- Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP);
- Consumers' Association of Canada;
- Consumers Council of Canada;
- Dieticians of Canada;
- Option consommateurs; and
- People's Food Policy Project.
FPT health ministers have agreed that food safety constitutes a priority area for the health sector, and that collaboration is needed with the agricultural sector in order to have a more integrated Canadian food safety system. From a health sector perspective, the deputy ministers of health have agreed to move forward on three priorities: enhanced and integrated food and human illness surveillance, prevention of foodborne risks through targeted interventions, and outbreak preparedness response.
FPT ministers of agriculture have also been working to advance three food safety priorities that will make important contributions to meeting the challenges faced by consumers and producers in Canada. These priorities include the development of a national meat hygiene standard to facilitate interprovincial trade; a systematic pathogen reduction strategy for meat and poultry; and better linkages among food safety and human health surveillance information sources to improve targeted interventions and manage foodborne illness outbreaks more effectively.
Discussions at senior levels have revealed the need for the Health and Agriculture Portfolios to proactively collaborate in efforts to mitigate food safety risks and reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks through action in those priority areas of mutual interest. Stronger FPT linkages also serve to strengthen response mechanisms, which are essential to promptly address emerging food safety events.
Collaboration is supported through the joint Agriculture and Health FPT Food Safety Committee, which constitutes a network of food safety officials across Canada working towards common food safety objectives.
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