Follow-up after recalls a problem for food inspection agency, auditor finds

OTTAWA – The auditor general says the largest meat recall in Canada’s history has exposed serious shortcomings at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The latest report from auditor general Michael Ferguson says the CFIA struggles to follow up on routine recalls and to manage major files, such as the one last year at XL Foods.

Ferguson’s team found widespread confusion among CFIA officials during emergencies.

During the XL Foods recall, for example, the company received multiple calls from CFIA officials who apparently didn’t know that their responsibilities had shifted during the emergency.

The report says all those calls created confusion and added to the company’s already considerable workload during the crisis.

There was further confusion after the CFIA ordered one distributor to recall products from a date that was not part of the recall.

The findings are part of Ferguson’s fall report to Parliament, which also faulted Transport Canada’s rail-safety inspections, the Canada Border Services Agency’s ability to keep borders secure and Public Works’ shipbuilding program, which may deliver fewer, less capable ships than needed.

Ferguson’s review of food safety found that the inspection agency:

  • keeps spotty records, hindering its ability to track investigations and recalls;
  • fails to properly document the reasons for big decisions or communicate this information to key players during high-profile, emergency recalls; and,
  • lacks a clear set of rules or procedures to ensure recalled products are properly disposed of.

“We concluded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did not adequately manage the food recall system,” the report says.

“Although the agency acted promptly to investigate food-safety concerns and verified that recalled products were removed from the marketplace, significant improvements to the food recall system were needed.”

The September 2012 recall of E. coli-tainted beef from an XL Foods plant in Alberta comes up a number of times in the auditor general’s report as an example of the trouble the CFIA has when it comes to managing major cases.

Ferguson’s team found food inspectors were slow off the mark during that recall. That’s partly because the company took a while to send its distribution records to the CFIA. Worse, the records were in an unusable format when they finally arrived. That meant inspectors had to waste several days putting the records into a format they could use before they could go ahead with their investigation.

The problems did not seem to be with the investigations themselves, or with getting food off of store shelves once a recall has been initiated. Ferguson’s team gives the CFIA high marks for its swift reaction when food-safety issues crop up. The agency launched investigations within a day of problems first being spotted in 55 of the 59 food recalls examined by the auditors.

The problem, according to the auditors, is with what the CFIA does once a recall is launched.

The agency lacks clear guidelines for the disposal of recalled products. That can lead to different approaches for same recall. During one meat recall, Ferguson’s team watched as some CFIA inspectors asked to watch food being disposed of while others were content just to see paperwork.

The CFIA is also supposed to review a company’s revised food-safety system and recall plan within 30 days of a recall. But these reviews had only been done for four of the 20 files examined by the auditors. Even worse, the CFIA wasn’t able to provide Ferguson’s team with proof any work had been done on seven of the 16 outstanding files.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose says she accepts Ferguson’s findings.

“When it comes to food safety, this government is always looking for opportunities to improve,” she said in a statement.

“We have significantly strengthened the food-safety system, and we’ll continue to take action to protect consumers.”

The statement also made reference to recent actions by the federal government to improve food safety, including a plan to allow inspectors to fine businesses that fall short of meat-safety requirements.