Although the Canadian food safety program is ailing, the government can fix its problems with substantial effort and investment, according to one researcher.
Explore this issueFebruary/March 2010
The biggest problem is Canada’s inadequate foodborne illness surveillance program. “We are reliant on managing risks of pathogenic bacteria in foods on data from other countries,” said Richard A. Holley, PhD, professor of microbial ecology of food spoilage; meat, poultry, dairy; food safety at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.
Without a national foodborne illness surveillance system, “we’re walking in a fog,” Dr. Holley told Food Quality. “We can’t accurately determine whether or not foodborne illness from ice cream occurs more frequently than it does from fried chicken wings. And we don’t know what organisms are more frequently involved.”
“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency [CFIA] concurs that timely and complete data is critical to foodborne illness surveillance and foundational to strengthening food safety approaches,” spokesperson Jenn Gearey told Food Quality. CFIA is the national food inspection authority in Canada. The organization administers the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act as it relates to food and has de facto responsibility for all food inspection.
The Canadian food safety system is plagued with other problems. The system is reactive, not proactive, and underreporting of illness is rampant, Dr. Holley wrote in an analysis for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. It only monitors food- and waterborne illness outbreaks that researchers suspect based on information from other countries, which represents only about 10% of foodborne illness cases.
When it comes to direct prevention of foodborne illnesses, Canada’s record is poor, Dr. Holley said. In a comparison of reported rates of foodborne illness caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Dr. Holley found that 80% of the 36 countries he studied had fewer E. coli cases than Canada; 30% had fewer cases of salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis.
Another issue is what Dr. Holley called “multijurisdictional fragmentation.” Currently, a patchwork of regional systems handles foodborne illness surveillance, an approach that results in poor interagency collaboration, cooperation, and information exchange among federal, provincial, territorial, and regional governments as well as between agriculture and health, he said. Inspectors at the various levels follow different regulations and receive different training.
“We do suffer from lax investments in foodborne illness surveillance, a lack of a uniform set of inspection guidelines across those three levels of government, and an inability to have these agencies at those various levels work together in times of crisis.”
Food inspection is another issue. “The reality is, you can’t inspect safety into food; you have to build it into food,” Dr. Holley said. Smarter inspections, not more inspections, are the key to improving food safety.
According to Dr. Holley, fixing the Canadian food safety program requires:
- Establishing a national foodborne illness surveillance program that would identify the foods and organisms that are the most common causes of illness.
- Reworking the interface among the various levels of government charged with food safety as well as those in agriculture and health. “These memoranda of understanding that have been developed over the years don’t work, and so this is an issue that goes to the constitution of the country,” he said.
- Using data from the surveillance program to develop uniform inspection policies based on risk.
- Determining where the organisms originate, namely, the farm. In particular, it is critical to halt the contamination, by tainted animal feed, of the animals we eat.