In a 2014 audit of Canada’s meat, poultry and egg inspection systems, American inspectors identified a number of concerns about the sanitation and food safety procedures employed in Canadian meat plants.
According to the Canada Food Inspection Agency, these concerns have now been addressed and there is no risk that Canada’s meat exports will suffer.
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“There are no outstanding issues and there was never any impact on trade,” said Barbara Jordan, associate vice-president of policy and programs for CFIA. In follow-up discussions after a draft report was issued in early 2015, both the CFIA and the American Food Safety and Inspection Service agreed that Canada had sufficiently addressed the problems and that Canada’s system would be considered equivalent to the American, she said.
Checking for contamination
Notably, the American auditors objected to how pork and beef was tested for residual feces, milk and digestive materials at two Canadian slaughterhouses. Although Canadian inspectors also have a zero-tolerance policy for the presence of these materials on meat, they test the meat after it has gone through a final carcass wash.
The U.S. inspectors said in the audit that they would prefer that the meat be tested for these materials before the final carcass wash, “primarily because this point best presents the opportunity for the in-plant inspectors to observe visible fecal material, ingesta, or milk contamination.” The carcass could be contaminated before the wash, according to the U.S. report, and they questioned the adequacy of CFIA’s inspection procedures to detect it.
The U.S. inspectors gave CFIA the option of moving the inspection point, or adequately explaining why an alternative inspection procedure is sufficient.
According to Jordan, “While we have equivalent outcomes in terms of safety, the actual activities may vary between the two countries. Sometimes those are identified as weaknesses when in fact they are just differences in the systems.”
“Both the U.S. and Canada have zero tolerance for fecal contamination,” she said. CFIA clarified how the Canadian system gives equivalent results to the American one, she said, and the US accepted that explanation.
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Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union and a former inspector, said he agrees with the Americans’ initial point of view, that carcasses should be inspected before being washed.
“The problem is, it’s a bit of a misnomer calling it a wash box,” he said. “What it does is, a carcass by that time is supposed to be spotless. And as it goes through this last wash box, it’s sanitized with a light spray. It’s not hard enough to actually wash stuff off. It’s just to sanitize the surface before the carcass goes into cold storage.”
“The problem is, if there’s visible ingesta at that point and somebody hasn’t identified and removed it, it just gets washed around and made impossible to see. Now you’ve got a contaminated carcass in storage.”
CFIA’s approach of testing carcasses in the storage locker is insufficient, he said. “The odds that you would randomly sample that very carcass that had the visible ingesta smeared around are pretty slim.”
U.S. inspectors also noticed a number of sanitation problems, like unsealed openings of ceilings and walls, loose caulking, rust, residue buildup and condensation in some facilities. These findings show “a systematic breakdown” in CFIA’s oversight, according to the audit, because they were not detected or resolved by Canadian in-plant inspectors before the American audit.
“If you examine any condensate within a facility like that, you’re going to find all kinds of microbial activity going on. In fact, you’d probably find listeria itself,” said Kingston.
He believes that having more inspectors could help to address those problems. “The kinds of things, like condensation on walls and unsanitary measures in food preparation areas, that’s the kind of stuff that any experienced inspector would be able to call if they were actually on site.”
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CFIA, in a written response to the draft audit, said that several of these issues were identified prior to the audit and were in the process of being addressed when the audit happened. They have since been resolved, according to the agency. CFIA, in a written response to the draft audit, also said that it will now mandate testing of surfaces in facilities that haven’t come into contact with food, in response to American concerns.
Some of these problems happened in a plant that U.S. personnel had previously identified as having listeria-contaminated prosciutto ham in 2013. That prosciutto had made it through domestic inspectors and was stopped by American officials at the U.S. border.
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According to the audit report, 101,499,649 pounds of Canadian meat and poultry products were inspected by U.S. officials at the border. They rejected over 89,415 pounds because of fecal or listeria contamination.
In a response to the draft audit, CFIA requested that the assessment of Canada’s meat, poultry and egg inspection systems be bumped up to “average” from the “adequate” grade it was initially given – “adequate” being the lowest-possible passing grade. No specific grade was given in the version of the report ultimately posted on the FSIS website.
Kingston thinks that we hear of problems with Canada’s food inspection system from foreign governments “because they’re the ones checking.” Canada wants to sell its food to domestic and international customers, he said, so they have an interest in saying that everything is fine.
“If Canada finds that their system is deficient, the last thing they’re going to do is broadcast it.”
CFIA said that it would be unusual if foreign inspectors didn’t find issues with Canadian facilities, and vice-versa.
“When they have identified an issue, they have in fact identified a difference between the way we approach an issue,” said Jordan.
“We respond to that and we work with them to reassure them that our system is also yielding the equivalent safe food for the public.”
CFIA is open to “constructive views” and is constantly updating how they review food safety, she said.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story said that Canada had to fix its problems by mid-March or face trade consequences. CFIA says that there are no outstanding issues that could affect trade.