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Opinion piece ponders lessons from listeria outbreak

An opinion piece recently published in the Globe and Mail asks what lessons on food safety and regulatory procedures will be learned and implemented in the wake of the listeria outbreak that has affected Maple Leaf Foods. 


August 22, 2008
By Globe and Mail

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August 22, 2008

The tragic outbreak of listeria infection that may have ended as many as five lives in Ontario should prompt a serious debate on how best to ensure the safety of Canada's food supply.

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Providing citizens with a reasonable assurance that they will not be poisoned by what they eat or drink is one of the most basic functions of modern government. It is no accident that laws governing the safe manufacture of food were among the first examples of meaningful state regulation in most developed countries; the possible consequences of tainted food are tremendous, and preventing them is a matter of critical public interest.


There are many ways to do so. Canada's current regime of meat inspection, administered partly by a network of federal inspectors in processing plants and slaughterhouses, is widely respected. But it nonetheless failed to prevent the entry of listeria, an admittedly tricky bacterium, into products at a major Maple Leaf Foods Inc. production facility. That fact alone makes a discussion of possible reforms a worthwhile endeavour.


The governing Conservatives apparently have some ideas on the subject. A cabinet document leaked earlier this year suggested shifting from full-time, in-plant meat inspectors to an industry-led regime, with government taking on a supervisory role. This has provoked loud protest from the opposition parties.


Such a plan may, however, have its merits. In Britain, the Meat Hygiene Service adopted a similar approach last year, establishing a system of "earned autonomy" in enforcing food-safety standards for good corporate citizens, replacing some in-plant inspectors with a rigorous system of spot checks, and focusing freed-up inspection resources on producers that are deemed to be greater risks.


Allowing industry to partially regulate itself can be an effective tactic, as Maple Leaf demonstrated this week. It went well beyond the demands of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency by shutting down the Toronto plant implicated in the listeria outbreak, and heeded virtually every lesson of good product-safety crisis management by quickly recalling all of the plant's products and forthrightly admitting the problem.


As Maple Leaf's executives surely understand, losing the trust of consumers is disastrous in any industry, but particularly so when it comes to food. If the overriding goal of public safety is better served by adjusting meat-inspection procedures to better reflect that strong disincentive, and to focus more closely on the producers most likely to disregard it, then Canada's government should consider doing so.


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