Canada’s public and private sectors are not doing enough to prevent foodborne illnesses. Among the major failings are inadequate active surveillance systems, an inability to trace foods from “farm to fork” and a lack of incentives to keep food safe along the “farm to fork” pathway.
The result? Eleven million or more episodes of food-related gastroenteritis in Canada every year. This is a crude estimate at best, because at least one report suggests that fewer than one in 200 episodes are reported.
A recent evaluation of food safety in 17 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked Canada in the middle with regard to rate of control of some but not all foodborne pathogens.
Fortunately, most instances of food poisoning are mild, but illnesses from contaminated food represent a substantial health and economic burden to Canada, at an average cost of $1,089 per case.
Furthermore, among vulnerable patients, such as the frail elderly, foodborne illnesses can be serious and even lethal. Our lacklustre effort at detecting, controlling and reporting infections caused by food is problematic. It’s even worse that when contaminations are confirmed, we are unable to trace the origins of the contamination along the food chain.
At present, rules and monitoring vary considerably by food source, jurisdiction (municipal, provincial or federal) and location.
What we need are more active forms of surveillance using common high standards for sampling foods throughout the food chain, for laboratory processing, for rapid removal of foods not meeting the standards and for reporting of laboratory results to the public. For the frail elderly and chronically ill, known high-risk microbes like listeria are especially problematic – we should aim specifically at zero tolerance for ready-to-eat foods for this population.
The same World Ranking report rated Canada’s food industries and government agencies 15th out of 16 on traceability. Traceability – knowing where food originates, how it is processed and what path it takes to the consumer – is another important aspect of food safety. Without traceability, it is often impossible to determine where contaminated food originated or where along its route unsafe practices put the public in danger.
What is worrisome is that this is the situation almost three years after the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, when at least 20 people died as a consequence of eating contaminated meats. The Weatherill inquiry made 57 recommendations after that outbreak, but they focused on improving government processes. We now have more inspectors, but we still depend on company insiders overseeing inspections with no uniform national standards or process benchmarks. Canadians are usually good at regulation. Canada’s pragmatic yet stringent regulation of financial institutions ensured that the economic downturn has been less severe here than in other countries. In health, our blood system’s surveillance programs and ability to trace products from “vein to vein” is another fine model. Canada needs to adopt rigorous food safety standards that value food safety over profitability, and enforce them with higher-quality and more active surveillance and inspection measures that put more emphasis on higher-risk foods.