A college professor, a consumer group, and the union representing meat inspectors all dumped on Canada’s food safety agency this week with the barbs obviously intended for Ottawa’s Conservative Government.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is implementing 57 specific reform measures called for by the independent Weatherill report that the government commissioned in response to a 2008 Listeria outbreak that killed 22 mostly elderly Canadians.  Ready-to-eat meats from Toronto’s Maple Leaf Foods were found to be responsible for the Listeria outbreak.

Ottawa put up an additional $75 million for the food safety measures and CFIA is hiring 70 more meat inspectors over the next three years, including 30 more by March. 

Neither Canada’s largest consumer group nor the union representing the federal meat inspectors is satisfied with the speed with which the government is moving to implement the reforms.  The non-profit Option Consommateurs and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union, gave the government a D- on food safety.

Union spokesman Bob Kingston said there has been little progress made because CFIA is so short of money that when it makes improvements in one area, another area suffers.

CFIA, however, said the report card issued by the consumer group and the union does not take in account improvements made since 2008.    CFIA’s Dr. Bob Evans, executive vice present of the agency, says substantive investments have been made to improve food safety in Canada.

“I believe the Canadian food system and food safety system is as good as any system that exists anywhere in the world,” Evans said.

Kingston said CFIA is “hamstrung by the absence of political will” and lacks full commitment from the federal government.  Gerry Ritz, Canada’s minister of agriculture, defended the government, saying it “responded quickly and concretely.”

Separately, Dr. Richard A Holley, writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, said Canada lacks a national surveillance program for the 11 million cases of foodborne illness the country suffers each year.

Dr. Holley was critical of Canada’s fragmented patchwork of regional structures, saying problems with the food safety system are “deeply rooted.”

Sporadic illnesses get overlooked, according to Holley.  He said better cooperation and information is needed.  He also called for “smarter inspection not more inspection” and says safety must be built into foods “not inspected into them.”

Canada’s lack of effective surveillance means CFIA spends more time reacting to outbreaks than pro-actively getting out ahead of problems, according to Holley.

One outsider not speaking up on how the government is doing in implementing the reforms is Sheila Weatherill, the public health executive who headed up the independent investigation.