How effective is Canada’s meat-inspection system?
At the end of a gravel road 20 kilometres east of Fort St. John, Arlene Laughren’s house used to be her little piece of heaven.
Now it’s like a prison.
Laughren moved here six years ago with her husband, Keith Holmes, to raise horses, llamas, sheep, and chickens and to grow vegetables on a 66-hectare hobby farm amid the picturesque coulees, hills, and ravines by the Peace River.
Now most of the animals are gone and her garden is overgrown with tall weeds. Laughren, 53, is stuck at home while her husband is away at work. She has brain damage, memory loss, and poor balance. She can no longer drive and hasn’t worked in more than two years—ever since she got two brain abscesses after eating a bad ham sandwich.
It was July 2008 when Laughren ate the ham produced by Maple Leaf Foods while at the Fort St. John hospital. She was getting treatment related to Crohn’s disease, which she has had since childhood. Her medication suppressed her immune system and made her more vulnerable to the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria on the ham.
Four days after the fateful meal, violent headaches started and she began to feel dizzy. After two falls, hospital staff gave her a CAT scan and saw something abnormal in her brain. Laughren was flown by air ambulance to Vancouver, where she had brain surgery. Doctors traced the abscesses to the ham, and she was diagnosed with the bacterial infection listeriosis. She remained in a Vancouver hospital for five months of treatment, followed by six weeks of rehabilitation.
Two years later, Laughren says doctors told her she will never work again. She used to counsel youth with difficulties at the Fort St. John high school. “I really miss them,” she says.
Laughren was one of hundreds of Canadians sickened—many with gastroenteritis—in the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, which caused 57 confirmed cases of listeriosis. Twenty-three died, including one in B.C., and many, like Laughren, suffered permanent disabilities. A government inquiry into the fiasco placed much of the blame on numerous shortcomings in the government’s food-safety system.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was especially singled out. The so-called Weatherill inquiry said it didn’t have enough meat inspectors and was poorly managed. For four years, inspectors had failed to do all of the required audits of the Toronto Maple Leaf plant that produced the tainted meat. The inquiry made 57 recommendations for improvements.
But more than a year later, food scientists and the CFIA’s own meat inspectors say that most of the recommendations have yet to be adopted and that Canada’s food supply may not be safer than before.
If anything, they say the level of inspection of deli meats—the kind involved in the Maple Leaf episode—may actually have declined. Meanwhile, the numbers of food poisonings and recalls are rising. And new, controversial methods of producing meat are increasing the risk of food-borne illnesses even more while raising other questions about the meat on our plates.
“The rates of listeria recalls in recent years are amazing. It’s one after the other. The rates are going up; recalls are going up. Something is fundamentally wrong,” says Kevin Allen, an assistant professor of food microbiology at the University of British Columbia.
“It’s safe to say some of the sanitation methods are not working as they should,” he says in a phone interview from his office. “There is a lack of control in the food-production process.”
Since the 2004 fiscal year, Canada has seen a steady rise in the number of meat and poultry recalls each year, according to data provided by the CFIA (which would not grant an interview to the Georgia Straight). The number has more than doubled, from 44 in 2004 to 91 in 2008. B.C. has been especially hard hit by food recalls. It experienced 605 recalls of all types of food, including meat and poultry, between 2004 and 2008—or 26 percent of the national total. Yet B.C. has only 13 percent of Canada’s population.
And because most food-borne illnesses never come to the government’s attention, the reported cases represent just a tiny fraction of all the food poisonings—only one out of every 300 to 350 actual cases, according to the Maple Leaf inquiry. In fact, food-borne illnesses sicken a whopping 11 to 13 million Canadians each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and as many as 500 may die as a result.