Wake up and smell the listeria

Finally, someone says it: the handling of the listeria outbreak has been abysmal. Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the sluggish public health response of a less educated, far less blessed nation. 16 people have died during the outbreak, and not one of the public officials or government members responsible for food safety has apologized or given any assurance that steps will be taken to improve the food safety regime. Instead, the Canadian public has been assured that Canadian food safety standards are the best of the world (they’re not) and that the system worked as it should. Right.

In 2002, eight people died in a listeria outbreak linked to sliced meat products from Pilgrim’s Pride in the United States. The subsequent fallout led to major changes in the U.S. food safety regime — the same ones resisted in Canada. Eight out of 300 million led to action, but 17 out of 30 million has so far led to a promise of an inquiry at some point that might issue some conclusions. I guess the threat of lawsuits helps spur action.

Why exactly will we wait for an inquiry to have changes even discussed? As Andre Picard observes in the Globe today:

Obviously, [meat-slicing] machines of this kind – and maybe all meat-slicing machines – have to be cleaned differently and inspections have to be more thorough. You don’t need a six-month inquiry to figure that out.

Nor do you need an esteemed judge and hours of cross-examination by top-notch legal counsel to know that the response to suspected contamination of mass-produced meat products was far too slow and secretive.

Picard goes on to detail the foot-dragging timetable of the first illness to the first notice to the first recall. Around the world, Canadian public health professionals help developing nations to establish information programs around food- and water-borne diseases, but here at home:

The way the CFIA warns the public of food-borne threats and manages recalls is a disgrace. Transparency and good communication are essential in responding to any public health threat but, at the CFIA, information is released in dribs and drabs, without coherence or context, and almost always on a voluntary basis by manufacturers.

The CFIA’s communications strategy, if it can be called that, is certainly effective at one thing — keeping the listeria story from grabbing headlines. A sixteenth death? Oh, well. Commenters at the cbc.ca website certainly aren’t concerned.

There will always be food that makes people sick. But Canadians have every right to expect good public health and food safety systems. When those things don’t work, we should all be asking why — after all, we’re the ones paying.