Protocol for CFIA's Sharing of Information during Food Safety Investigations and Recalls

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Section 1: Overview

Introduction

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the food industry share a common goal of safeguarding food in Canada. This is achieved through the commitment of Canada's food industry to implement rigorous food safety control programs coupled with oversight by Canada's food safety regulators. Despite these measures, sometimes unsafe food makes its way into the Canadian marketplace and action needs to be taken to mitigate risks. To that end, it is important that there is ongoing communication and collaboration among those involved in the food recall process. This protocol describes the CFIA's communications and information sharing practices during food safety investigations and recalls.

Background

High profile food recall situations can create intense media scrutiny, increased expectations from stakeholders as well as heightened public interest for the desire for more information and transparency around food safety investigations and outcomes. Recent independent reviews and government action plans, such as the Independent Review of XL Foods Inc. Beef Recall 2012 and the 2013 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada have recommended improvements in communication and increased information sharing with both stakeholders and the public during food safety investigations and recalls.

Purpose

This protocol provides an understanding of the type of information that can be shared by the CFIA with other government departments, regulated parties, third parties, and the public during food safety investigations and recalls. It describes how this information is shared and outlines the type of information that the CFIA is obligated to protect. Policies and legislation governing the sharing of information are evolving and may result in changes to communication practices. This protocol provides information on the current practices, which are aligned with the policies and legislation that prevail currently.

Authorities

The CFIA's ability to share information during food safety investigations and recalls is governed by the following:

Once in force, the Safe Food for Canadians Act will provide the Minister the power to disclose personal information or confidential business information if the Minister considers that the disclosure is necessary:

  • to identify or respond to a risk of injury to human health associated with a food commodity; or
  • for a recall that is or may be ordered under section 19(1) of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Act, including for monitoring the conduct of the recall or its effectiveness.

The Safe Food for Canadians Act will also provide the Minister the power to disclose, in prescribed circumstances determined by the regulation, personal information or confidential business information obtained under the Act.

Disclosure under the Safe Food for Canadians Act will not require the consent of the person to whom the information relates, but will need to be conducted according to all applicable legislation and guidelines.

Guiding Principles

The CFIA is dedicated to safeguarding food, animals and plants, which enhances the health and well-being of Canada's people, environment and economy. In carrying out its mandate, the CFIA is guided by its Statement of Values and Transparency Policy. The CFIA recognizes the important role that industry associations and other stakeholders play in contributing to the effectiveness of recall activities. In keeping with this, communications during food safety investigations and recalls are guided by the following principles:

  • The top priorities for the CFIA are food safety and public health;
  • The integrity of food safety investigations is protected;
  • The rights of the regulated parties involved are respected;
  • The CFIA shares accurate information that is obtained with scientific rigour; and
  • The CFIA acts in a manner that is consistent with its legal obligations.

Type of Information that must be Protected

When conducting a food safety investigation and/or a recall, the Agency is required to act in a manner that is consistent with the applicable information management policies, practices and laws (Privacy Act, Access to Information Act and the common law as it relates to confidential business information). The following describes the type of information that the CFIA protects:

  1. Personal Information: Personal information means information about an identifiable individual that is recorded in any form (refer to the Privacy Act, Sec. 3, for the detailed interpretation of what constitutes "personal information").

    Examples of information that is protected include:

    • name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, websites (if it reveals personal information on an identifiable individual);
    • race, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status;
    • education, medical, criminal or employment history;
    • any identifying number or symbol assigned to the individual;
    • their personal opinions or views; and,
    • any of their financial information.
  2. Confidential Business Information: Confidential business information includes financial, commercial, scientific and technical information supplied to a government institution by an outside party that is treated consistently in a confidential manner by the outside party. In the context of a food safety investigation, the CFIA will collect a wide variety of information which may include confidential business information. Examples of confidential business information in the food industry includes:
    • product formulations or recipes;
    • scientific or technical information such as unique manufacturing processes, research and development information;
    • commercial information such as sales, volume of production; product distribution, buyers and supplier information; and
    • financial information.
  3. Compliance Action: The CFIA posts certain compliance information on its Web site. Compliance actions that are not posted are protected.

Section 2: Information Sharing

Information Sharing with Other Government Departments and Other Countries

Government partners abide by similar legislative requirements and obligations in terms of protecting confidential business information, personal information and information disclosure.

During a Food Safety Investigation:

Information may be shared with other governments, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), Health Canada, Provincial and Municipal Health Authorities, and impacted foreign counterparts, such as the United States Food & Drug Administration during a food safety investigation. Information regarding the evidence collected may also be shared with Health Canada for the purpose of obtaining a Health Risk Assessment.

One of the vehicles used to share information is the Outbreak Investigation Coordinating Committee (OICC). The OICC is a forum that is established to coordinate and share information among regulatory agencies in Canada during foodborne illness outbreaks. The OICC uses the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol (FIORP) as a guide to share information and to formulate and coordinate the outbreak investigation and response strategies. The OICC will generally include representatives from CFIA, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and the implicated provincial health authorities.

During an OICC, the participating parties share their findings in respect of their particular aspect of the outbreak investigation. For the CFIA, this can include traceback and food safety investigation findings (e.g. sample results and process information related to the product(s) of interest).

When a Risk is Confirmed:

When a food product has been assessed as representing a risk, information relating to the nature of the problem and level of risk posed may be shared with the CFIA's Canadian government partners. Consignee details may also be shared to help facilitate recall effectiveness checks.

When the CFIA determines that a food product that poses a risk has been exported, information relating to the nature of the problem as well as names of receiving consignees is shared with the government of the receiving country. Similarly, if the food in question had been imported into Canada, investigation findings may be shared with the government of the originating country. In both instances, the information exchange enables the foreign country in question to take any follow up action it deems necessary.

Information Sharing with Regulated Parties

During a Food Safety Investigation:

During a food safety investigation, the CFIA is actively engaged with implicated regulated parties, in person and in writing (most often by e-mail). The exchange of information is shared between the CFIA and the regulated parties during a food safety investigation to collect relevant evidence to:

  1. identify the potential source of contamination;
  2. identify affected products; and
  3. assess the health risk.

The type of information that is freely shared with the regulated party includes items such as the nature of the concern, the steps taken by the CFIA to investigate and the laboratory results. Confidential business information received from other regulated parties also implicated in the food safety investigation, and any personal information, is protected and not shared by the CFIA.

The regulated party also has the important role of notifying the CFIA as soon as they become aware that a food safety concern exists; providing assistance in the food safety investigation; and providing details of the process, production / testing records and any other relevant information and documentation.

The regulated party may share information with other stakeholders (i.e. supply chain, associations they may be members of, etc.) at their own discretion.

When a Risk is Confirmed:

When a risk is confirmed and a decision to request a recall is made, the goal is to ensure that information on affected product(s) is accurate and to effectively implement the recall.

The following are the types of information shared with regulated parties when a risk is confirmed:

  • the rationale for the CFIA's risk management decision, including supportive evidence, as necessary
  • a copy of the draft food recall warning for the regulated party's review for accuracy when a recall to the consumer level is being requested

If the regulated party wishes to discuss the request for a recall or obtain a better understanding of the Health Risk Assessment, a discussion is held with the appropriate parties. If the regulated party requests a copy of the Health Risk Assessment, it can be sent to them by e-mail subject to any protections that may be afforded under the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Information Sharing with Third Parties and the Public

During a Food Safety Investigation:

The CFIA's obligation to protect confidential business information and personal information significantly limits releasing information to third parties and the public during active food safety investigations. In addition, the integrity of the food safety investigation, namely the ability to collect and analyze information, including product samples, needs to be maintained.

For food safety investigations that are complex, have potentially broad implications or are otherwise likely to result in high profile situations, the CFIA engages with potentially affected national industry associations by sharing information that is not confidential business information or personal information for the purpose of providing advanced notice. This may occur, for example, after a public alert is issued in a foreign country, or a foodborne illness outbreak is declared in Canada and is pointing to a specific commodity.

When a Recall is Implemented – Third Parties:

When a recall is being implemented, the CFIA's goal is to expedite the removal of the affected product(s) from the marketplace. The Agency recognizes the important role that certain industry associations representing food retailers and distributors (such as the Retail Council of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers and the National Foodservice Distributors Association) can play in terms of helping to promptly remove hazardous product from the marketplace. Therefore, when a public warning is being issued, the CFIA has procedures in place to provide an early notification to these parties by sharing a copy of the warning before it is released to the public.

The Agency is also available to respond to enquiries from industry associations and other stakeholders.

When a Recall is Implemented – The Public:

When a recall is implemented, the goal is to provide consumers with timely and accurate information so that they do not consume affected products.

The following are the types of information shared with the public when a recall is implemented:

  • public warnings for Class I and certain Class II recalls are sent to the newswire for pick-up by the media and via e-mail notification to CFIA food recall subscribers
  • public warnings as well as allergen recalls, irrespective of class, are also distributed via Twitter (@CFIAfood), the CFIA's Facebook account and sent by e-mail to subscribers
  • all recalls, irrespective of Class, are posted on the CFIA and Healthy Canadians websites

Information Sharing during High Profile and Emergency Events

Most incidents are addressed within the normal scope of the CFIA's operations, using normal structures and procedures. When a situation is expected to exceed normal operational capacities or is particularly complex, the CFIA may activate its National or Area Emergency Operations Centres and employ the Incident Command Structure (ICS).

The ICS is:

  • a tool for responding to high profile issues or emergencies using a single model for command, control and coordination of emergency response.
  • a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure under the authority of a single incident commander, who reports to the CFIA's Senior Management Committee.

Under the ICS, the CFIA coordinates communication and information exchanges with stakeholders through the Liaison Officer and the Communications Officer. During information exchanges under an ICS, the CFIA is still obligated to protect personal information and confidential business information.

  • The Liaison Officer:
    • is the point of contact for engagement with all stakeholder groups (i.e. provinces and territories, other government departments, industry associations and international partners)
    • initiates notification contact via e-mail with the stakeholders and enables information requests and questions regarding the incident response to be channeled through him/her
    • arranges for joint meetings with stakeholder groups, as required
    • ensures effective information sharing and communications between various organizations and participates in conference calls to provide briefings to and answer questions from supporting organizations
  • The Communications Officer:
    • serves as the coordination point for all public information, media relations, and internal information sources for the Emergency Operations Centre
    • provides strategic risk communication advice and communication tools
    • coordinates technical briefings, press releases and web postings related to the response
    • links with the liaison officer, as required, to share information with key stakeholder groups

Once the CFIA activates the ICS, the Liaison Officer contacts the affected stakeholders and arranges for updates and information sharing as required. During media briefings, key stakeholders are invited as listeners. The Liaison Officer is responsible for bringing any event specific issues or concerns raised by stakeholders to the attention of the Incident Commander and for providing a response to questions.

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