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Listeria shed awareness on food safety

“You can’t inspect safety into food. You must build safety in.”

– Richard Holley

As listeria fades to the back pages, University of Manitoba researcher Richard Holley wants the public to know that there is more to fear from foodborne pathogens like campylobacter and salmonella than the listeria pathogen.

Holley’s job in the faculty of agriculture and food science at the University of Manitoba made him a good candidate for the press to reach for comments and quotes during the crisis.

Holley recently told the Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association the press generally handled the story well. But he was disappointed by the lack of attention paid to the fact that food safety must be addressed at all levels of the production chain.

“You can’t inspect safety into food,” he said, “you must build safety in.”

Inspectors who check processing plants can evaluate basic cleanliness, and determine whether paperwork seems in order, but they can’t actually see the bacteria.

For Holley, ridding foods of pathogens requires an all-encompassing approach.

“It’s dumb to feed animals these diseases,” said Holley, yet he said many of these diseases are present in animal feed and their repeated ingestion lengthens the period animals shed them in manure.

“The zoonotic pathogens are carried asymptomatically by the animals, but cause human illness,” he said.

Because the bacteria don’t make the animals sick, it seems there is no hurry to fix the problem.

Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has overall responsibility for food inspection in Canada, provinces and municipalities are also involved. These activities are poorly coordinated and often the rules differ, leading to differences in what is acceptable performance. This is coupled with the absence of a national intestinal disease surveillance system, which could identify disease agents and the foods which most frequently make people ill.

Unfortunately, these gaps create a situation in which food safety risk can’t accurately be measured, let alone managed. Holley said it was well into the second week of the story before these deficiencies attracted media attention. With the listeria crisis in the news for about eight weeks, Holley gave 110 interviews. He said it is important to remember that the illnesses and 20 deaths with a link to the problems in the Maple Leaf plant involved people whose immune systems were otherwise compromised.

The outbreak from Maple Leaf was actually contained within three months although it can take up to three years to pinpoint the source where outbreaks occur in other countries.

Holley said campylobacter and salmonella diseases make more people sick and are a much more serious problem in Canada than listeria. Campylobacter is on most chicken before cooking and the only safe way to stop bringing the pathogen into the kitchen, where it may cross-contaminate uncooked produce is to pasteurize the chicken by irradiation.

Safer food is possible. But it will be costly. When avian flu hit flocks and BSE hit herds, many animals were slaughtered and feed ingredient restrictions were put in place. But those are diseases affecting mainly animals and their occurrence has significant trade and economic impact. Since their discovery, these diseases have killed less than 300 people worldwide whereas salmonella alone, silently and often without headlines kills 500 people in the U. S. each year with listeria chalking up the same number.

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