Canada is taking a big step in food safety.

The federal government in Ottawa has decided to implement all 57 recommendations made by an independent investigation into an outbreak of foodborne illness that claimed 22 lives in 2008.

The deadly outbreak shook Canada.  Hundreds became sick.  Fifty-seven Canadians became seriously ill, and 22 died from complications due to Listeriosis.  The Listeria bacteria were eventually traced back to the Maple Leaf Foods plant on Bartor Road in Toronto.

The way it all came down was not pretty.   The first illness associated with the Listeria outbreak was recorded on June 3, 2008, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did not confirm Listeria Monocytogenes in Maple Leaf products until Aug. 16, 2008–more than two months later.

The report said it took three weeks for all government agencies to begin working together on the outbreak and even then the effort was “muddled in confusion.”

Maple Leaf would eventually recall 191 of its ready-to-eat meat products and shut down the Toronto plant.  Canadians would also learn that Maple Leaf knew it had a Listeria problem in the plant before the outbreak occurred.

The herky-jerky nature of Canada’s response to the Maple Leaf outbreak brought down criticism on the government and led to the independent investigation headed up by Sheila Weatherill, a public health executive.

Weatherill said a “vacuum in senior leadership” and “confusion and weak decision-making” in Ottawa contributed to the crisis.  Her 57 recommendations were pointed, and not without cost.  For example:

  • Hire 166 new food safety staff, including 70 new food inspectors
  • Make health risk assessment teams available to support food safety investigations on a 24/7 basis  (There was no team available for the Listeria outbreak because they were off for the summer.)
  • Improve communications with the public during outbreaks
  • Improve tracking of potential food borne illness outbreaks through a national surveillance system
  • Improve detection methods for listeriosis
  • Initiate an independent audit to ensure the food inspection system is working as well as possible
  • Canada’s chief public health officer will take a lead role during foodborne illness outbreaks

All totaled, the federal government will immediately spend $75 million (Canadian) on implementing the recommendations.  “The recommendations she’s giving us provide a clear road map forward as we strengthen our Canadian food safety system,” says Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

According to the report, Canada has seen a doubling in the number of listeriosis cases since 2005.  As many as 80 percent of the serious listeriosis cases have occurred in nursing homes and institutions like assisted living centers.  Symptoms of listeriosis can take up to 70 days to appear, making food trace-backs difficult.

Among other findings contained in the report:

  • Maple Leaf employees never told CFIA inspectors about the repeated number of times that Listeria was found inside the plant
  • CFIA did not assign enough inspectors to the Maple Leaf plant; existing inspectors were “stressed”
  • Health Canada’s Risk Assessment Team was not staffed 24/7 because it was summer
  • Health Canada did not think it had a leadership role in the outbreak
  • Canadians were not provided with the information they needed

“As foodborne illnesses are now the largest class of emerging infectious diseases in the country, and listeriosis is a serious disease with deadly consequences for vulnerable groups, governments cannot ignore these findings,” the report said under a section titled “Actions, not words.”

“Everyone involved in the events leading to, and in managing the response to, the 2008 listeriosis outbreak should view the lessons learned from this tragic event and the recommendations as imposing an obligation to pursue innovation and improvement,” it said.

For its part, Maple Leaf Foods took out full-page advertisements in Canadian newspapers last month to mark the first anniversary of the deadly outbreak.  “On behalf of our 24,000 employees, we promise never to forget,” wrote Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain.