Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians
Impact of Actions on Improving Canada's Food Safety System
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The actions taken to meet the Weatherill Report recommendations have had a widespread positive impact on Canada's food inspection and foodborne illness outbreak response systems. Results from a recent survey conclude that Canadians are generally confident in the food safety system, with 89 per cent expressing, at a minimum, moderate confidenceFootnote 8.
The Government has enhanced its overall performance and effectiveness in managing food safety risks, identifying new and emerging food safety issues, and responding to food safety events when they arise. There is heightened awareness of the significance and high priority of food safety at all levels of government.
Many improvements are specific to the risks of Listeria monocytogenes in RTE foods, such as the comprehensive review and revision (2011) of Health Canada's Listeria policy, the introduction of tests designed to identify Listeria monocytogenes more quickly, and increased surveillance of Listeria through the National Enteric Surveillance Program (NESP). These and other changes have reduced the risk of an outbreak of listeriosis and will ensure that if an outbreak were to occur, it would be more swiftly detected and the outbreak response more quickly initiated.
In addition, changes in how organizations work together; in the regulatory framework; and in the priority areas of reducing food safety risks, enhancing surveillance, and improving the outbreak or emergency response will result in better management not only of Listeria monocytogenes but also of all foodborne hazards.
The work of the Special Committee of Deputy Heads (SCDH), which was formed to oversee the coordination of the implementation of the Weatherill Report recommendations, has improved interaction and collaboration among the organizations responsible for food safety. In addition, communication channels and information-sharing mechanisms are now more extensive as a result of the SCDH. The Committee receives real-time information updates from the CPHO of Canada and the CFSO for Canada on any potential food safety initiatives and issues. In addition, SCDH partners have strengthened their relationships and created a culture in which information is shared among partners so that when a food safety incident occurs, they are in a much better position to take effective action. The SCDH structure provides a platform for ongoing collaboration to enhance the food safety system's ability to anticipate and proactively address emerging issues.
Prevention: Minimizing the Risk of Foodborne Illness
Today, Canadians are at a lower risk of exposure to contaminated RTE meat through the work of the meat processing industry and regulators to improve environmental testing and food sample testing for the presence of pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes at meat processing plants. The Government promised to hire new food safety staff and has hired 170 full-time food safety inspectors, as well as additional health risk assessment staff. Investments in new inspector tools, technology and training have improved efficiency and ensured that inspectors have the necessary resources to provide effective oversight of industry food safety systems. There is also a wider range of possible food safety interventions for the food industry to use through an accelerated approval process for new food additives and technologies of public health relevance. Consumer food safety education campaigns—in particular with the aim of educating and protecting vulnerable populations before and during a foodborne illness outbreak—have reached a large audience through the use of social media, as well as more traditional means of communication.
Surveillance and Detection: Keeping Track of Food Safety Hazards
The Government undertook to improve national public health surveillance to better link cases of foodborne illness and more rapidly identify outbreaks. By taking action on the Weatherill Report recommendations on surveillance and detection of foodborne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, jurisdictions are better able to detect outbreaks more quickly. Faster detection is made possible through the development and availability of improved and innovative, rapid, reliable laboratory procedures and detection methodologies for hazards in food. Action has also been taken on the development of a network of networks, which will further improve future surveillance and detection activities through the integration of laboratory networks.
Response to Outbreaks of Foodborne Illness
Improvements to the FIORP, the Government's blueprint for handling multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreaks, and the development of the Health Portfolio FI ERP provide greater clarity on how to manage outbreak and emergency situations. The FIORP (2010) has been instrumental in helping the Government answer its commitment to improve coordination among federal and provincial departments and agencies. Roles and responsibilities are clearer, information sharing and communication guidelines are in place, support is enlisted and internal surge capacity is identified, should an outbreak occur.
New reporting structures for the OFSR have enhanced communication and made recall operations more effective.
The Weatherill Report notes problems with the food safety system under four themes. The Government's action on each one is described here:
1. the focus on food safety among senior management in both private and public domains
In the public domain, changes in governance such as the appointment of Canada's Chief Food Safety Officer ensure that senior management is engaged in food safety events from the start. The revised Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol has clarified the division of responsibility and decision making among authorities when dealing with an outbreak of foodborne illness. Communication between regulators and the food industry has improved senior management oversight of food safety in processing plants, while changes to policies and directives have provided clear direction to inspectors and industry on their responsibilities for food safety.
2. the state of readiness of various governments
The Government's efforts to improve its advance planning and preparation, in consultation with other jurisdictions and with the food industry, mean that Canada is now better able to prevent, detect and rapidly deal with outbreaks of foodborne illness. Improved laboratory methods and surveillance and expedited processes to approve risk mitigation interventions contribute to an increased state of readiness. Staff available to provide emergency surge capacity have been identified, 24/7 risk assessment capacity has been developed, emergency staff are being trained and the training of food inspectors has been enhanced to ensure readiness.
3. the sense of urgency at the commencement of the outbreak
The revision and testing of protocols such as the FIORP and the development of the FI ERP lay the essential foundation for responding to foodborne illness outbreaks and emergencies. The weight-of-evidence document sets out criteria to inform decisions on appropriate risk management actions, including public warnings. Protocols clearly direct when emergency operations centres should be activated and what role authorities at the national level have in managing an outbreak of foodborne illness.
4. national communications with the public
The development of the Food Safety Portal, the Food Safety Communications Protocol, and information aimed directly at higher-risk groups have all served to greatly improve communication to Canadians during an outbreak and to provide information that consumers can use to help prevent foodborne illness. The document Prevention of Listeriosis: Considerations for Development of Public Health Messages helps to guide the work of local, provincial, territorial and federal governments in informing caregivers and in developing policies on food preparation in care facilities. In the event of an outbreak, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada is the chief spokesperson to provide information to Canadians on how they can protect themselves during a multi-jurisdictional foodborne illness outbreak.
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