ARCHIVED - Lessons Learned from the Listeriosis Outbreak: Remarks by Deputy Minister of Health Canada, Morris Rosenberg, to the Sub-Committee on Food Safety of the Standing Committee on Agriculture

Lessons Learned from the Listeriosis Outbreak
Sub-Committee on Food Safety of the Standing Committee on Agriculture
Remarks by Morris Rosenberg
Deputy Minister of Health Canada
April 22, 2009

Check Against Delivery

Mr. Chairman,

I would like to thank the Sub Committee for inviting me to be here this evening.

Joining me are Ms. Meena Ballantyne, Assistant Deputy Minister of Health Canada’s Health Products and Food Branch; and Dr. Jeff Farber, Director of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Food Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch.

We are here to outline the support that Health Canada provides to the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency during an outbreak of food-borne illness and on an on-going basis.

Protecting the health and safety of Canadians is Health Canada’s business. Our highly skilled and dedicated scientists, regulators and policy-makers come to work every day with that in mind.

In the same way, each of Canada’s federal food safety partners is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians.

We are always searching for ways to enhance Canada’s food safety system, which is already one of the best in the world.

Despite our dedication, the fact is that we were unable to prevent the loss of lives during the listeriosis outbreak of 2008. That’s the bottom line.

The outbreak was above all a human tragedy. On behalf of everyone at Health Canada, I would like express my sympathy to the families who lost loved ones or had family members who became ill. I am mindful also of the great anxiety it provoked in all Canadians. We are deeply committed to learning from this tragedy. I pledge this not simply as a senior manager, but as a Canadian who wants his family to have confidence in the safety of food that comes into our home every day.

At Health Canada we are always asking ourselves how we can do things better. As a science-based organization, we are continuously asking whether our policies and practices are keeping pace with the best science available.

The Lessons Learned report that we have shared with the Committee reflects Health Canada’s commitment to learning from what worked and what didn’t work.

And I also look forward in this regard to the recommendations that will come from this Sub-Committee and the independent investigator.

Health Canada’s Role:

Health Canada’s role in the federal food partnership is to help build a strong foundation of sound food safety science. Employing the best science available we work closely with CFIA and PHAC by performing several key roles:

We develop food safety policies, guidelines and standards. For example, we have a policy on Listeria in ready-to-eat foods, which I will say more about shortly.

We conduct food safety research in our laboratories, and carry out tests for the presence of contaminants in food. In the case of Listeria, we work in collaboration with PHAC to operate the Listeria Reference Service.

The Service maintains a database for listeria and tests food samples to determine whether there is a link between a suspected outbreak and a specific food source.

Upon the request of CFIA, Health Canada conducts scientific health risk assessments that inform the steps the Agency takes to respond effectively and appropriately in a given food safety circumstance.

Through our It’s Your Health web publications and other routine seasonal food safety advisories, we furnish periodic science-based information to Canadians so they can protect themselves from food-borne illness.

Finally, as part of our role in delivering public health services to First Nations, we provide information to communities about food recalls.

What happened during the outbreak:

In late July last year, Health Canada received a routine request from Toronto Public Health to test food samples for the presence of Listeria. Three of the 11 samples we tested were found to be positive. Those tests were done within the established timelines expected for the completion of such testing.

Throughout the duration of the outbreak, Health Canada performed the genetic typing of samples necessary to link human outbreaks and a food source. In fact, Health Canada’s laboratories tested over 200 samples from July to September. Some samples were also tested by PHAC’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg as part of agreement to expand laboratory capacity when required.

Once CFIA and PHAC were able to make the link between the samples in question and the cases of listeriosis, Health Canada’s scientists used this information, along with the existing scientific knowledge, to prepare several health risk assessments that began in August and continued into the fall.

Throughout the management of the outbreak, Health Canada participated in daily teleconferences with CFIA, PHAC and Toronto Public Health in to share information and manage the response to the outbreak.

Dr. Farber was present as an expert spokesperson at the technical briefings held for the media on a daily basis throughout the outbreak. We re-issued our “It’s Your Health” article on Listeria.

First Nations and Inuit Health Branch staff disseminated food recalls and alerts, as appropriate, in the communities where they work.

Overall, our staff worked long hours, seven days a week during the outbreak, and produced lab results and health risk assessments within accepted time targets. All of our health risk assessments were turned around within 24 hours or less.

I am aware that some questions have been asked about the time it took to complete the laboratory tests. However, the Committee should be aware that these tests were carried out within the time frames required to obtain scientifically reliable results, and were within international norms. This has been confirmed by the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario in his recent report. But it is important for the Committee to know that we are also undertaking research to determine whether more rapid testing methods could be developed for the future.

Actions taken since the outbreak:

Since the outbreak, we have conducted a lessons-learned assessment of what we learned from the outbreak. We focussed on operational considerations.

We posted our assessment on Health Canada’s website and we have provided a copy to both this sub-committee, and to the independent investigation.

We are working with our federal and provincial partners to ensure that roles and responsibilities in an outbreak are clearly defined and that communications protocols are strengthened.

Health Canada has long had in place a policy on Listeria. In his remarks to the Committee, Michael McCain stated that “The Health Canada policy [on Listeria] is based on sound scientific principles and is recognized globally as an appropriate approach to Listera control.”

But in keeping with our organizational commitment to constantly review and improve processes, Health Canada is also in the midst of updating the Listeria policy to reflect the latest scientific information available. We are undertaking broad-based consultations on the revision of this policy, and expect to have it finalized by the end of this fiscal year.

As well, in September, Health Canada issued an Interim Marketing Authorization to enable the use of sodium acetate and sodium diacetate as food additives in certain ready-to-eat meats that can be used to inhibit the growth of Listeria.

We are working to build greater surge capacity in our health-risk assessment and lab testing functions. This means having enough people to do the work when urgent situations place a greater demand on our laboratories. During the outbreak, our technical experts worked day and night to perform the tests required.

Our approach will entail enhanced cross-training so that we draw upon a greater pool of expertise over longer periods of time.

We have staff on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle risk assessments in order to help manage food safety situations. The Food Directorate is also taking steps to streamline testing procedures by standardizing the information we require and having one contact point for rapid flow of information between the partners.

New measures have been implemented to strengthen the coordination of public communications, and to enhance the focus on providing information for vulnerable populations.

We are also working to streamline our regulatory processes.

As I mentioned at the outset, we take our mandate very seriously at Health Canada. We have an unwavering commitment to doing our part to protect the safety of Canada’s food supply.

Through our Lessons Learned report, we have demonstrated our commitment to learning from this very difficult experience and being accountable for our performance.

Health Canada’s overriding goal now is to work closely with the federal food safety partners, this Committee and the Independent Investigator to make sure that we have the procedures in place to ensure, to the extent science will allow, that an outbreak of this kind does not happen again.

Thank you for your attention. We would be pleased to answer any questions.

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