Public Health Act aims to cure ‘chronic non-compliance’

Stephen Brun
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P.E.I.’s new Public Health Act aims to cure what the health minister calls a “chronic non-compliance” among those who prepare and serve food to the public.

Health Minister Doug Currie

The need for an updated act, which recently passed second reading in the provincial legislature, was heightened by two high-profile cases of food-borne illnesses in the past year.

But planning actually began back in 2008, during Doug Currie’s first tenure as minister of health, when the department began looking at public health legislation in other Canadian provinces.

“We took it upon ourselves to look at what was going on with trends and best practices in legislation across the country,” said Currie.

“There’s been chronic non-compliance under the old Act. We had legislation, but there wasn’t a thrust to be able to use the act to allow owners and operators to comply with the… legislation.”

In May, health officials determined more than 200 cases of food-borne illness resulted from a fundraising supper in Malpeque’s Princetown United Church. The likely cause was a toxin found in cooked beef that was not stored at the proper temperature.

Following that case, food service at the Stanhope Beach Resort was halted after more than 100 people contracted norovirus from contaminated food or water. The resort ultimately shut its doors for the remainder of the season.

Currie said those were prime examples of what can happen when food isn’t handled properly, something the new act will hope to address.

“We’re in the business of keeping people healthy and keeping people out of the hospital,” said Currie. “So this act is a modern act which gets us in line with all the other provinces in Canada in respect to the preparation and handling of food and the prevention of food-borne illness in facilities across Prince Edward Island.”

The existing Public Health Act was written in 1980 and is now outdated, Currie added. The new recommendations will give the province’s Chief Public Health Office more authority, and clearly sets out a fine structure and protocols for those who don’t comply.

If it’s proclaimed, which is expected early in the new year, the new act sets out a fine structure for first ($1,000), second ($2,000) and third violations. A third offence carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine, a six-month jail term, or both.

Violations under the old act carried only the latter penalty, meaning it may have been rarely enforced.

Still, Currie said, the Chief Public Health Office doesn’t want to be in the business of handing out fines.

“Part of our responsibility will… be to educate and work with facilities and individuals… for example, church groups that put on events and raise money for their local communities,” he said. “That’s all very important to us, but we need them to respect that they have a responsibility and duty to comply to the appropriate ways to handle food in order for it to be sold and distributed to the public.”

Organizations: Chief Public Health Office, Princetown United Church, Stanhope Beach Resort

Geographic location: Canada, Prince Edward Island

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