The Canadian Food Safety System: Food Recalls

When there is reason to believe that food is contaminated or does not follow federal regulations, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) initiates a five step process to investigate and recall product if necessary.

Triggers

Several triggers can start a food safety investigation, which could lead to a food recall.

  • Illness outbreak - Public health officials identify a potential link between illness and a specific food.
  • Food test result - Food test results obtained by the CFIA, industry, a provincial or territorial government or another country identify a possible health risk.
  • CFIA inspection finding - CFIA inspection activities, such as visual observation of products and manufacturing practices or analysis of company records, detect a food safety concern.
  • Consumer complaint - A consumer complaint is received about the safety of a food product.
  • Company-initiated recall - A company informs the CFIA that it is undertaking a self-initiated recall.
  • Recall in other country - Another country recalls a food product that is also present in Canada.
  • Other triggers - Other triggers can include information from law enforcement about potential food tampering, trade complaints, information from consumer associations, or even posts on social media websites.

Food Safety Investigation

Food safety investigations are complex and involve several essential steps to determine if a food recall is required. When dealing with potentially unsafe food, the CFIA acts as quickly as possible to collect information and make decisions. Investigations are carried out by a variety of experts at the CFIA, including inspection staff.

Objectives

To determine:

  • which foods could be unsafe;
  • where potentially harmful product has been distributed; and
  • the root cause of the problem, if possible.

Traceback/Traceforward

  • The CFIA must trace food products backwards through the distribution and production systems in order to determine where the problem occurred and trace the food forward to determine what specific products should be recalled.
  • Distribution and product information is collected and analyzed including where in Canada the food was sold, product codes and expiry/best before dates.

On-site Activities

  • Once potentially harmful food is traced back to a production or processing facility or to an importer, CFIA inspectors immediately visit the site to inspect processing or production practices, equipment, conditions, and production and distribution records.
  • CFIA inspectors also collect food samples for laboratory testing and identify any potential corrective actions the company should take.

Health Risk Assessment

If a potential health risk has been identified, a formal request for a health risk assessment (HRA) is submitted to Health Canada. The purpose is to determine what level of risk a specific food presents for the Canadian population.

Health Canada determines the level of health risk by addressing the following questions:

  • What is the likelihood the food will cause illness?
  • What is the potential duration and severity of illness?

Recall Process

A food recall is an action taken by a company to remove potentially unsafe food products or products from the market that do not comply with relevant laws. It is the responsibility of industry to remove the product from sale or distribution.

The CFIA's role is to inform the public, oversee implementation of the recall and verify that industry has removed recalled products from store shelves.

Decision Making

  • Based on Health Canada's HRA, the CFIA determines the most appropriate action, including whether or not to recall product.
  • If a recall is necessary, the CFIA decides what class to assign to the recall: Class I (high risk), Class II (moderate risk) or Class III (low and no risk).

Recall Implementation

  • When a recall is necessary, the CFIA requests the company initiate a voluntary recall.
  • The company is responsible for immediately contacting all of its accounts (e.g. distributors or retailers) that received recalled product and the CFIA provides guidance or assistance when needed.

Informing the Public

  • Informing the public about high risk recalls is critical as consumers may have recalled product in their homes.
  • Depending on the level of risk (i.e. class of recall), the CFIA will issue an alert to the media.
  • The CFIA also makes recall information available via its website, an email distribution list, Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, widgets and a mobile app.

Recall Verification

  • If food has been recalled, it is the responsibility of industry to remove it from the marketplace immediately.
  • The CFIA conducts effectiveness checks to verify that unsafe food has been removed from store shelves.

Follow-Up

The CFIA may heighten oversight and testing for a defined period of time, review its standards and policies or work with industry sectors or foreign countries to address trends that go beyond a particular company, sector or recall.

After recalled product is removed from the marketplace, the CFIA continues to work with the processor, manufacturer or importer to ensure that any problems that led to the recall are resolved.

A record of all recalls (Class III and III), including those that did not include a public warning, can be found in our Food Recall Reports.

Additional Information on Food Recalls