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The big debate about food safety

The Canadian Medical Association Journal and others are raising concerns about the safety of Canada’s food supply. But let’s not overreact

What do ham and cheese sandwiches from Prince Edward Island, green onions from Ontario and cantaloupes from Manitoba have in common? All were among the panoply of foods cited in the more than 100 health hazard alerts issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) last year. The list included everything from fresh herbs, frozen hamburger patties and ginger-bread houses to processed cheese slices (a multiple offender) and ground nutmeg. The majority of the alerts warned of potential contamination from either salmonella or listeria monocytogenes.

The latter was the culprit of the deadly listeriosis outbreak traced to a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant that killed 22 people in 2008. Afterward, the federal government hired an independent investigator, Sheila Weatherill, to recommend improvements to our food safety. Her report proposed 57 measures that involved better preparedness for outbreaks and a greater focus on food safety in the public and the private sector.

Yet two years after her report was issued, conflicting viewpoints continue about the efficacy of the nation’s food safety regulations. The advocacy group Food Safety First recently claimed the Stephen Harper government is unwisely giving the food industry more power to police itself. It also contends that CFIA lacks resources to ensure food processors and importers are following the rules.

Then in April, the Canadian Medical Association Journal ran the provocatively titled editorial “Food in Canada: Eat at your own risk.” It alleges the country’s private and public sectors aren’t doing enough to prevent food-borne illness. The authors, led by Dr. Paul Hébert, editor-in-chief, cited numerous failings, including “inadequate” surveillance systems that fail to trace foods from “farm to fork.” The result, they wrote, is at least 11 million cases of food-related illnesses each year.

The basis of the CMAJ editorial was a recent evaluation of food safety in 17 of the 31 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Prepared by Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, associate director at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan, the “World Ranking: 2010 Food Safety Performance” report assessed countries’ food safety across four categories.

Canada ranked a respectable fourth overall in the food safety report with grades of “superior” in both the consumer affairs and governance and recalls categories (see chart, below). But it scored only an “average” grade in biosecurity and a “poor” in traceability.

Canada ranked 11th and 15th respectively in those categories. The report called Canada’s traceability system “regressive.” Charlebois, the report’s author, cites several stumbling blocks to better traceability, namely information sharing and cost. But he disagrees with the CMAJ’s harsh editorial. “There are some areas of concern, obviously, when it comes to Canada’s performance. But overall the country has performed quite well.” Others say that Canada’s poor showing in the traceability and management sector is indicative of a problem with imports. In a report published last September, Peter Everson, CFIA’s chief audit executive, noted that the number of countries from which Canada imports food grew to approximately 193 in 1995, from 143 in 1990.

Everson says that CFIA’s systems fail to provide “consistent, integrated information for monitoring and oversight” of imported food. “In my opinion, CFIA management of imported food safety has de ciencies that represent multiple areas of risk exposure requiring significant improvements related to the governance, control and risk management processes,” said Everson.

But Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president, public and regulatory affairs for Food and Consumer Products of Canada, contends that Canada has one of the safest food systems in the world, with the food industry doing everything in its power to ensure the safety of Canada’s food. “The improvements that have been made by the government in response to [the Weatherill] enquiry are very real and have been very important improvements,” says Nighbor. “The suggestion the government has done nothing since the listeriosis outbreak is misleading.”

Frank Schreurs, president and chief technical o cer for the Guelph Food Technology Centre–which audits more than 1,500 food businesses, agrees. The CMAJ editorial has “taken some information and they’re couching it to make it sound like, ‘Oh we’re in a lot of trouble.’ We’re not,” says Schreurs. “We’ve got one of the soundest food safety systems in the world.”

Charlebois, now associate dean at the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics, thinks consumers must also share some of the blame for food safety. He estimates that close to 85% of the reported 11 million annual cases of food-borne illness are the result of improper handling at home. “[It’s] crosscontamination, lack of refrigeration and people not washing their hands when cooking. Those are the kinds of things that are really hurting consumers.”

That doesn’t mean Canada shouldn’t strive to improve traceability. But when it comes to food safety here, the odds are still pretty good that the ham and cheese sandwich you had for lunch will leave you with nothing more serious than a slight case of indigestion.

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