Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Calgary Centre-North.
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to this motion, as it will permit me to update the House on the government's actions, roles and responsibilities with respect to food safety from a public health perspective primarily. The health and safety of Canadians has always been, and will continue to be, our top priority.
I will talk about the role that the health portfolio plays in food-borne safety. Before I do that, I will focus my remarks on the role of the health portfolio in responding to this incident and, in particular, the progress made over the past few years to enable federal departments and agencies to better anticipate and respond to food safety incidents.
The Public Health Agency has been working with the provinces and territories from the very beginning of this process on a daily basis. It has been dealing with the public as well as the provinces and territories in providing support on this very important matter.
In Canada, the number of cases of E. coli infection reported annually has been declining over the past several years. Our national laboratory surveillance systems are detecting linked cases faster than ever before and enabling quicker action to identify the source of the outbreak and limit the spread.
From a health perspective, we are of course concerned by any food-borne illness that arises.
The following protocols are in place to address food safety incidents. Here I believe it is important for members to understand the roles and responsibilities of the federal, provincial and territorial governments when an outbreak such as this one occurs.
It should be noted that whenever there is any question of food safety posing a risk to Canadians, the health and agriculture departments and agencies at all levels of government work together to address the outbreak. When an outbreak takes place in a single province or territory, that particular province or territory conducts its own investigation.
The Public Health Agency maintains databases that allow provinces to compare the fingerprints of the strain that is causing infection with those that have been seen in other Canadian provinces or the United States. This allows more rapid detection of clusters of food-borne illnesses.
In certain cases, a province or territory will call upon the federal government for support. When a food-borne illness outbreak spreads beyond a single jurisdiction, the Public Health Agency of Canada works closely with Health Canada and the CFIA to address outbreak investigation and response issues. In this particular situation, provincial public health authorities in the affected provinces are leading the investigations into the E. coli illnesses in their jurisdictions in consultation with their local and regional medical officers of health.
However, given that the situation involves a food-borne illness in more than one province, the Public Health Agency of Canada is leading the multi-jurisdictional public health investigation. This involves consultation, content expertise, coordination and leadership at the national level with the goal of preventing additional illness and sharing and integrating their communication practices. In fact, from the start PHAC has been speaking daily with the provinces and territories to exchange information. Since then the 15 affected cases have all recovered or are recovering.
When the agency undertakes an investigation of a food-borne outbreak, it first tries to develop a full picture from the public health perspective. This can be trying for the agency as not all people who suffer from food-borne illness will actually visit their doctor.
Samples are taken from those who do seek treatment and are sent for testing by the agency and/or other public health laboratories to identify the pathogen causing the illness. These tests provide detailed information about a pathogen very similar to that of a fingerprint. The results of the tests are entered into PulseNet Canada, a network of federal, provincial and territorial public health and food laboratories coordinated by the agency, for comparison across the country. This helps identify matching patterns and clusters of illness that may indicate outbreaks.
Every case of food-borne illness is examined. To be in a position to identify an outbreak, public health officials need to identify unusual rates of illness and a cluster of cases, each with a string of the same DNA fingerprint. When more illnesses than normal are identified, the agency assesses whether an outbreak is occurring. This requires a comprehensive epidemiological investigation and response.
If illnesses are occurring in more than one province, territory or country, the Public Health Agency of Canada establishes and manages an outbreak investigation coordinating committee. The committee's role is to coordinate a multi-agency response to a multi-jurisdictional food-borne illness outbreak, with the goal of protecting the health of Canadians. All provinces and territories are invited to participate, along with the agency, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The main purpose of the committee is to allow partners to share information, coordinate the outbreak investigation, identify the source of illness and contain the effects of the outbreak. It is worth noting that in some cases the committee can be struck even when an outbreak is restricted to one province or territory, such as in the current situation where Alberta requested committee investigation when illnesses were limited to that province.
These efforts are guided by the food-borne illness outbreak response protocol, also known as the FIORP, a protocol that was collectively developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in consultation with provincial and territorial stakeholders.
The protocol is put together for the collaboration and the overall effectiveness of the response during multi-jurisdictional food-borne illness outbreaks. The protocol provides guidance that enables governments to work together and to communicate quickly when managing national or international food-borne illness outbreaks.
Once the food source is identified, a health risk assessment is required to determine the level of risk associated with the food and informed risk management decisions. These health risk assessments are conducted by Health Canada and help determine appropriate interventions and mitigation strategies, such as recalls and/or public advisories. Health Canada works closely with federal partners to ensure a coordinated approach to addressing the risks and communicating with Canadians.
When there are illnesses, the Public Health Agency takes the lead in communicating to Canadians about the risks, the response and how they can protect themselves. This requires close collaboration among a number of parties. It also includes strong national public health surveillance tools, solid laboratory diagnostic and networking capacity and excellent communication.
I am pleased to say that the coordination of the investigation with provincial health authorities has been going well. That is thanks in large part to the protocols in place, which were modernized as part of actions taken over the past several years.
Following the 2008 listeriosis outbreak, the government immediately took a number of actions to prevent and reduce risks to our health, guided by the Weatherill report. Moreover, working in collaboration with our federal and provincial partners, the health portfolio continues to strengthen its capacity to prevent and respond to food-borne illness, building on the significant progress made in addressing the Weatherill recommendations.
I would like to take a few moments to outline that progress.
As we have said before, our response to the XL Foods recall exemplifies the improvements that our government has made to strengthen the food safety system. We are better at detecting and responding to outbreaks of food-borne illness through a number of improvements, such as strengthening our national surveillance systems.
During a potential outbreak of any kind, early detection and fast response is absolutely crucial. I am proud to say that Canada's ability to do so is truly world-class and has been greatly improved in recent years. We are now able to use innovative, state-of-the-art laboratory technologies to identify outbreaks more quickly and with more scientific certainty. For example, because this particular E. coli strain has a common DNA fingerprint, a lab method requiring more detailed analysis is needed to accurately confirm suspected E. coli cases and link them to recalled products.
The National Microbiology Laboratory is the only lab in Canada certified to perform this more detailed analysis and is playing a leadership role in confirming all suspected cases of E. coli linked to this outbreak. Federal agencies are continuously developing faster and more accurate methods for detection of food-borne pathogens.
In addition, Health Canada has taken measures so that it can sustain its immediate response to outbreak situations on a 24/7 basis. The department has increased its health risk assessment expertise and capacity to assess the risks posed by products and processes to the Canadian public, and to provide expert advice on the effectiveness of proposed corrective actions. It is also crucial to ensure that all who are involved in addressing food-borne illness outbreaks have a clear understanding of the protocols.
That is why our government strengthened measures under the food-borne illness outbreak response protocol with provincial and territorial authorities.
The recent update of protocols to include strong communication mechanisms allows public health and food safety authorities across Canada to respond faster, more efficiently and more effectively to specific food-borne illness outbreaks.
Over and above the need to communicate with authorities, it is important to communicate with Canadians. The health portfolio and CFIA have provided regular updates to Canadians on the situation and on how to protect themselves from food-borne illness. Public health notices are issued when new cases are confirmed.
Each of these initiatives highlights the important contribution of the health portfolio during an outbreak and the importance of coordination and collaboration with a large network of partners. The public health response to the XL Foods incident exemplifies many of the improvements our government has made to the food safety system.
Given that the opposition House leader said that he would like to see speedy passage of Bill S-11, I would ask for unanimous consent for the following motion, that notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practice of the House, Bill S-11, an act respecting food commodities, including their inspection, their safety, their labelling and advertising, their import, export and interprovincial trade, the establishment of standards for them, the registration or licensing of persons who perform certain activities related to them, the establishment of standards governing establishments where those activities are performed and the registration of establishments where those activities are performed, be deemed read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.