Canadians refer to it simply as “the Maple Leaf outbreak.” In 2008, an outbreak of listeriosis linked to meat products from Maple Leaf Foods led to the deaths of 23 people in Canada. The independent inquiry that followed spared no one, but specifically identified a “vacuum in senior leadership” at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Maple Leaf Foods has begun to shut down old plants that were difficult to sanitize and maintain, and is opening more modern facilities.
Since then, the CFIA has been under the gun to implement reforms mandated by that inquiry—and it’s starting to show. A new report from the agency reveals that Canadian food recalls are up 24% this year—263 compared with 212 last year. The CFIA predicts that such increases will continue as it pushes forward with its five-year food safety action plan. It has strengthened the ranks of its food safety inspection staff by approximately 15% compared with five years ago (4,898 vs. 4,165).
But increasing the number of inspections and inspectors is only part of the solution, said Keith Warriner, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Guelph and director of its food safety and quality assurance program.
“The problem, especially when it comes to fresh produce, is this: We can test for it, but do we have a method of removing the contamination?” he said. “Maple Leaf has increased their testing tenfold, to 3,000 environmental samples a year. They’re finding contamination and recalling tons of product, which is affecting their business. But what they should have done is also focus on new technologies in controlling contamination. Everyone jumped on the testing bandwagon, but then there’s no option other than recall it or divert it away.”
Dr. Warriner said Maple Leaf has begun to shut down old plants that were difficult to sanitize and maintain and is opening more modern facilities that he predicted will yield significant improvements in safety.
Over time, Dr. Warriner suggested, the new Canadian approach may prove more fruitful than the U.S.’s newly enacted Food Safety Modernization Act. “FSMA relies heavily on third-party auditors, which, as the Jensen Farms outbreak demonstrated, are not always reliable,” he said. “In Canada, on the other hand, they’re focusing on prioritizing high-risk foods—putting more efforts into things like deli meats and poultry that have been identified as of particular concern. Ultimately, I think the Canadian system will be a safer one.”