The first thing to understand about the XL Foods recall is that it was almost certainly preventable. As in all such incidents, those responsible would have us believe it was some kind of fluke, unforeseeable and beyond human control. This is unlikely.
The systems used to protect food safety in modern facilities work superbly when properly implemented. They are based upon Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), a system devised by NASA to safeguard the food of its astronauts.
I know about these systems because I spent 20 years consulting in this field for corporations and governments around the world, starting in the mid-1980s — long before most of the food industry had even heard about management systems. I’ve written two books on the subject that have been translated and distributed on four continents.
Much of HACCP boils down to strict hygiene, practised meticulously at every step — such as sterilizing knives between cuts — to prevent the spread of pathogens. But it is also essential to have accurate record-keeping, testing, data collection and analysis to demonstrate that the system is working or not.
These systems work wonderfully well in the hands of people who are technically competent, honest and diligent. But in the hands of people who are not, they are quickly compromised and can turn into a facade of false or incomplete paperwork, concealing bad practice, incompetence or outright deceit.
When sloppy practices are allowed to creep in and there is no immediate consequence, they become the accepted norm: a process that experts call “normalization of risk.” This erodes safety margins so that disaster will inevitably strike.
Was XL Foods giving the kind of attention, resources and management support required to sustain its food safety system? A lot of people don’t seem to think so, including former employees and the union. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s own inspectors were also apparently aware of known deficiencies that had gone uncorrected.
The reality is that commercial pressures will always tend to overwhelm safety concerns, unless there is some mechanism to keep the operators honest and on their toes. Regulators can achieve this to some degree through probing inspections and firm action to sanction non-compliant operators, but this no longer happens in Canada.
The CFIA does not seem an effective regulator, reporting as it does to a minister whose main job is to promote the commercial success of the industry. Our small whistleblower charity has received credible reports of CFIA management muzzling its own inspectors rather than deal with serious problems they were reporting.
Canada has a history of food and water problems and of food industry whistleblowers being crushed. In 1998 three Health Canada scientists, Dr. Shiv Chopra and two colleagues, testified to the Senate regarding the drug approval process for bovine growth hormone and animal feed. All three were fired in 2004. In 2008, Luc Pomerleau, a CFIA employee, stumbled upon confidential documents outlining a secret, controversial plan to cut back on inspections and delegate more responsibility to food producers. He was fired for sharing this document with union colleagues. Ironically, the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak occurred soon after.
If a firm becomes negligent and the regulators are not up to the job, there’s one line of defence left — the employees. They are the first to know about dangerous shortcuts or bad practices. We would be much safer if workers in the industry could report safely to an independent body when they saw problems not being addressed, and do so with confidence their concerns would be investigated properly and they would suffer no reprisals.
This has been done successfully in other countries such as the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, but not in Canada, where there is essentially no effective whistleblower protection, regardless of official claims to the contrary.
The Harper government swept to power on a promise to clean up government, including whistleblower protection for government employees. But the law it passed was pitifully weak, and its choice of integrity commissioner disastrous.
During her three years in office, Christiane Ouimet, who was responsible for protecting 400,000 public servants, found zero cases of wrongdoing in the entire public service and zero cases of reprisal. She abruptly retired when it became public that she was under investigation by auditor general Sheila Fraser. Ouimet was paid more than $500,000 to leave and suffered no sanctions for the misconduct that Fraser’s report later exposed.
Ouimet’s successor, Mario Dion, is a vastly more experienced bureaucrat, but he too has been a disappointment. A federal judge who was asked to rule on one of Dion’s cases recently handed down a harsh critique of the investigations and ordered them redone. The judge said the investigators made so many mistakes that these amounted to “a clear breach of the common law duty of procedural fairness.” Key witnesses were never interviewed and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner “failed to investigate obviously crucial evidence.” Yet this is the agency charged with protecting people like our federal food inspectors.
It is no wonder CFIA employees at XL Foods seemed to be keeping their heads down. By failing to protect them properly, the federal government has let down Albertans badly.
What about the XL employees in the plant? In Canada there is no whistleblower protection for private sector employees, and not even the pretence of such.
Fortunately, Premier Alison Redford has promised a whistleblower protection law for Albertans, which should be unveiled very shortly. We hope this will be a strong bill rather than mere window dressing. Our organization, which has ready access to the leading experts in this field, has also offered assistance to the minister responsible, Donald Scott, but our letters have gone unanswered. The worst thing that Redford could do is to copy other Canadian legislation.
If Redford’s bill is weak, or if it does not cover the private sector, then it will do little to prevent the recurrence of preventable disasters, whether in the beef industry, the oil and gas industry, petrochemicals or mining. Industry might reflexively resist such a law, but it would be good for employees, for consumers and ultimately for industry, which sometimes needs to be protected from its own short-sightedness.
The XL Foods recall has been a devastating blow to the company and to the community. It has undermined the confidence of consumers and unfairly tainted the entire beef industry’s reputation around the world. The industry and consumers need protection against recurrences.
It is time for both Redford and the federal government to step up and deliver proper protection for honest employees who might put their careers on the line to protect us. There couldn’t be a better time to do this.
David Hutton is executive director of FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform), which works to protect whistleblowers who safeguard the public interest.