Understanding Food Safety Investigations and Recalls

Originally published: Canadian Celiac magazine – February 2018 – Updated June 2024

The food safety investigation and recall process is managed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) with support by Health Canada and initiated when there is reason to believe that a contaminated food can or has reached the marketplace. There are several triggers that start a food safety investigation. Some of these could be stimulated by activities within the CFIA such as findings during regular inspection or test results from targeted surveys. External sources can be drivers such as a detected pattern of reported illnesses (e.g. Public Health Agency Canada), voluntary manufacturer or distributor notifications, information coming from other foreign inspection agencies and consumer complaints.

A food safety investigation includes inspection and related activities to verify if there is a food safety hazard and to determine the nature and extent of the problem. Health Canada does a Health Risk Assessment of the identified hazard(s) whether physical (e.g. glass), biological (e.g. listeria) or chemical (e.g. undeclared wheat/gluten). Using this tool, the CFIA determines the most appropriate action, including whether or not a recall is warranted or other actions. If a recall is determined to be necessary, the CFIA and Health Canada decide what class to assign to the recall: Class I (high risk), Class II (moderate risk) or Class III (low and no risk) and immediately communicates this to the public and other affected national and foreign stakeholders. For the sake of speed, multi-media is used as can be seen in the example ( right up to direct and individual personal email if requested.

The CFIA’s top priority is timely and effective response to prevent or reduce the impact of food safety emergencies. They have a 24-hour service standard to respond to all Class 1 food recalls which pose the highest risk for illness. This can be a complex, deductive process requiring the interaction of many stakeholders. This includes not only rapid communication but also follow up action by the CFIA to ensure containment and withdrawal are effected and any needed improvements at the manufacturing level are immediately enacted by those responsible to prevent a recurrence.

The CFIA responds to approximately 3,000 food safety investigations each year of which less than 10 % result in an actual recall incident. Of these, 99.9% are voluntary and precautionary in nature. The balance which is rare can be dictated as mandatory by the direction of the Minister of Health. It should be noted that, In the case of wheat/gluten, less than 20% have any reported illnesses.

As an important stakeholder, consumers have a critical role to play by notifying the appropriate parties immediately when they suspect that they have been exposed to a contaminated food and especially if an illness has occurred.

CFIA contact information can be found at

For a product carrying a GFCP trademark, also contact BRCGS, at Accurate and timely information is the key. Keep the package for important information to better answer questions from any of the investigating stakeholders.

Everyone playing their part helps make the Canadian food safety system to best in the world, protecting consumers and businesses alike.

When calling CFIA have the following information ready:

Source: CFIA,

Contributors: Frank Massong was Vice-President, Regulatory and Technical Services, Allergen Control Group Inc. and Melissa Secord, Executive Director Celiac Canada

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