Sheila Weatherill was appointed by Prime Minister Harper to investigate what led to the listeriosis outbreak that left 22 people dead during the summer of 2008 and recommend how to avoid a similar tragedy.
After a four month study, Ms. Weatherill delivered a report that made several important findings of fact but failed to get to the bottom of the food inspection deficit.
The majority of Ms Weatherill’s 57 recommendations were aimed at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Though her report falls short, Ms. Weatherill does make some important findings of fact.
Fact: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) failed to do mandatory safety audits of the Maple Leaf Foods plant which produced the tainted cold cuts for years prior to the outbreak.
Fact: A new inspection system (the Compliance Verification System or CVS) implemented just before the outbreak was flawed and in need of “critical improvements related to its design, planning and implementation”.
Fact: The CVS was “implemented without a detailed assessment of the resources available to take on these new (CVS) tasks”.
Fact: A shortage of food safety inspectors was in play before the outbreak. “In the lead up to the outbreak the number, capacity and training of inspectors assigned to Bartor Road (the tainted Maple Leaf plant) appear to have been stressed due to their responsibilities at other plants, the complexity of Bartor Road including its size and hours of operation, and necessary adjustments required by the implementation of the CVS.”
In short, Ms. Weatherill found that there are too few inspectors covering too much territory, hobbled by a new inspection system that never worked.
In spite of these stark findings, Ms. Weatherill does not call on the federal government to immediately address the inspection deficit by making additional investments. Instead, she simply recommends the CFIA conduct a resources audit to accurately determine ‘the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors…”.
Incredibly, Ms. Weatherill was unable to determine the number of food safety and meat inspectors employed by CFIA even though she interviewed the most senior political and bureaucratic officials involved with food safety.
In its response to the Weatherill report, the inspectors union raised the possibility that the CFIA and others in government withheld information or deliberately misled Ms. Weatherill on the matter of the number of food and meat inspectors working for CFIA.
Late during the afternoon of December 19, 2011, the federal government quietly issued its final report [link to attached pdf] in response to Weatherill’s recommendations. While some important changes have been made to improve the food safety system, Ottawa failed to take-up one of Ms. Weatherill’s most important recommendations.
Noting that a new inspection system was introduced without knowing the cost of making it work properly, Weatherill called for an audit (Recommendation #7). Ottawa has never acted on this critical recommendation and to this day remains blind when it comes to the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors to make the Compliance Verification System effective.
Today, the federal government is embarking on reform of food safety regulations to make them more friendly to industry while cutting the budget for food safety and inspection.