More food inspectors won’t solve tainted meat scandals

By Dr. Sylvain Charlebois

In the wake of the XL Foods tainted meat outbreak, the general consensus among politicians and union leaders is that Canada should retain the services of more federal inspectors in order to elevate the quality of our food safety systems, arguing that this is only way to effectively reduce the number of future outbreaks.

It is a message Canadians can easily comprehend, which is why it has received considerable airplay over the last few years. However, while increasing the proficiency of how we monitor risks across food supply chains in our country is a necessary step towards greater safety, increasing the inspection capacity alone won’t resolve the problem.

Canada spends about $10 per capita on food safety, which is more than most industrialized counties in the world. Billions have been invested over the past 15 years to offset any undesirable psychological effects generated by major recalls our country has experienced. As a result, it has become acceptable practice to spend more on food safety measures without any clear strategic reasoning to back it up.

Mad cow, botulism, spinach, tomatoes, cantaloupe, the listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf – all of these incidents have triggered an increasing influx of public funds into the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), leading to a ballooning budget, which currently exceeds $700 million. Given that 7,500 people work for the CFIA, most taxpayers wonder what all these employees are doing to make our food safer. All positions at the CFIA have merit; however, the public are left wondering if there is any substantive return on their investment into food safety.

The XL Foods recall, like all other outbreaks, begs a call for more transparency. The reasons for this are twofold: First, more than ever before, consumers are demanding greater knowledge about food systems, and often fail to get answers to specific queries about risks and practices in the industry.

No agency, public or private, communicates risks to the Canadian public on a regular basis, in real-time. As a result, food safety scares consistently prompts media to become public educators about how food systems work, and many companies have taken advantage of this channel of communication.

In 2008, recognizing no one was championing the food safety education agenda, and using media as a vehicle to communicate directly with the public, Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, became the spokesperson of the listeria outbreak. Maple Leaf’s effective risk communication strategy increased public knowledge of listeria, then a relatively unknown bacterium in Canada at the time of the outbreak.

Overall, most Canadians are largely oblivious as to what goes on at food processing plants. Other than restaurants and grocery stores, the food industry remains a complete enigma for many consumers. This information vacuum needs to be filled by an independent unit who can inform the public on a regular basis.

Second, transparency can be achieved by focusing on easy access to procedural information. In times of heightened food safety concerns, inspections practices, frequencies, call reports and reports on actions taken when a company is in breach should be readily available to the public. Information is power, particularly in a society in which most continuously mitigate risk.

The XL Foods recall is evidence that the rapport between food safety regulators and industry is fragmented. On the one side, industry culprits often perceive the CFIA as a cost-enabling agency. Food safety costs have risen in recent years and made a dent on many food companies’ bottom lines.

Given the complexity of modern systemic risks in food, these increases in costs are obviously warranted. The CFIA, on the other hand, does not have the authority to compel the speedy delivery of information from industry during an outbreak.

Its only power is to revoke a license outright, which is what happened in the case of XL Foods, in which the CFIA clearly felt the information provided by XL Foods was unsatisfactory. Industry should be more forthcoming so the CFIA can properly manage risks to safeguard the integrity of our food safety program. This, or the law should be changed, for the public’s sake.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph.