Friday, September 19, 2008

Medical journal demands inquiry

16 dead in listeriosis outbreak. '100-per-cent avoidable and unnecessary'

Canwest News Service

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Canada's top medical journal is calling for a full-scale public inquiry into the listeriosis outbreak, saying the independent investigation promised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be "inferior to every epidemic inquiry in recent Canadian history."

The Canadian Medical Association Journal says that in August, Canada experienced the worst epidemic of listeriosis in the world. As of last night, contaminated cold cuts had killed at least 16 Canadians from among 43 confirmed cases of listeriosis.

Also yesterday, New Brunswick's Health Department issued a statement saying that the death of elderly woman in that province has also been linked to the outbreak.

"Already the death toll is more than double that of the notorious (E. coli) outbreak in Walkerton, Ont.," according to an editorial released ahead of print yesterday. And because listeriosis can remain dormant for two to three months, "the deaths, illnesses and other effects such as spontaneous abortions may not be over yet."

The journal is demanding a public inquiry into the "major failings" of Canada's food inspection system on the same scale as those for the tainted blood scandal, Walkerton and the SARS epidemic, saying Canadians "should settle for nothing less."

"The fact is, this outbreak was 100-per-cent avoidable and unnecessary," says editorial board member Amir Attaran, Canada research chair in law, population health and global development policy at the University of Ottawa.

"If your food supply is safe and free of listeria, no one is going to get listeriosis out of eating the food. It's as simple as that."

The journal says the federal government's lax standards on listeria and a decision to transfer inspection duties for ready-to-eat meats from government inspectors to the meat industry "helped bring about this epidemic.

"Yet surprisingly, government has taken no remedial steps beyond issuing a food recall. Instead, officials praise the success of our infectious disease surveillance system - as if, with 16 dead, there were cause to celebrate - while food safety standards remain as low as ever."

"It is not a policy success to say we detected a bad food processing plant because there's the corpse that proves it," Attaran said in an interview.

The government has also handed self-inspection to the operators of animal feed mills and cut back on avian flu preparedness, he says.

Bad animal feed containing recycled animal tissue led to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalitis, or mad cow disease, while an influenza pandemic could kill "tens of thousands of Canadians."

"Listeriosis pales in comparison. Overall, it would seem that, as a country, Canada is far less prepared now for epidemics than in the past," the journal says.

Attaran said the independent investigation promised by Harper would be closed to public participation and that, according to the terms of references, the investigator won't have the power to subpoena witnesses or documents.

"It's not clear who the so-called judge would be. It's absolutely clear there are no public hearings planned, no opportunity for the public to comment or give evidence or ask questions," Attaran said.

"There is not going to be a public report published at the end, and there's no commitment that the report will be made public to Canadians at large or even to parliament.

"It seems to us at the journal very clear that what this exercise represents is an attempt to neutralize what's fairly obvious government responsibility for this outbreak, but also to neutralize it in a way that will never let the public know precisely what went wrong."

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