A report from Canada’s auditor general takes the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to task for weaknesses in its decision making and follow-up measures for large, emergency food recalls.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson’s report found that the CFIA does a good job with initial reactions when cause for a recall is found, but he cited “widespread confusion” among the agency’s staff and officials during emergencies.

“While illnesses were contained in the recalls we examined, I am not confident that the system will always yield similar results,” Ferguson’s report states. “The weaknesses we found in decision making and follow up stand in the way of the continuous improvement of a system intended to deal with food safety incidents.”

The audit report makes a number of recommendations, all of which the CFIA “accepts,” said Rachael Burdman, senior media relations officer. She said work is well underway to implement all of the recommendations.

The Canadian Produce Marketing Association filed comments during the audit process and worked with CFIA — at the agency’s request — after the audit to provide input, said Jane Proctor, CPMA vice president for policy and issue management.

“A key point of concern for us and our members was that there have been situations in the past where recalling firms have received multiple communications from different people (in the government),” Proctor said. “We said there needs to be only one point of contact to avoid confusion.”

The other main concern CPMA staff and committees discussed with CFIA involved the templates the agency used for data collection related to recalls. Proctor said CPMA asked for the forms to be revised for clarity.

“The issues we had have been addressed,” Proctor said.

The CFIA had already begun making changes before the auditor general issued his report in late November. Canada’s government is reviewing food safety and is implementing new nationwide rules, similar to the process in the U.S. with the Food Safety Modernization Act.

As of March the CFIA began producing weekly corrective action reports so inspection managers can better follow up when deficiencies are found. Three of the agency’s four inspection guide manuals have been finalized, Burdman said Dec. 18.

“The fourth will be finalized by March 31, 2014,” Burdman said.

The audit report specifically pointed to CFIA’s need to ensure that companies have comprehensive distribution records and that those records are maintained in an accessible and immediately usable format to speed traceability during recalls.

Other findings in the auditor general’s report included:

 Follow-up procedures to ensure recalled food is actually removed from the stream of commerce also need to be beefed up;

  •  Procedures to verify that recalling firms corrected underlying causes of recalls were inadequate;
  •  Corrective actions have not been completed on a timely basis in the past;
  •  Many CFIA officials were not familiar with the agency’s emergency management plan for food safety;
  •  Rational for selecting recall dates and excluding other dates was not adequately documented;
  •  Food safety decisions were not communicated to key stakeholders, including many food safety experts in the agency;
  •  Terminology and expectations were not consistent; and
  •  CFIA had not assessed the information needs of stakeholders, including recalling firms.