OTTAWA – Up to 13 million Canadians — more than 40 per cent of the population — will suffer from foodborne illnesses this year, at a cost of $1.3 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses, medical experts say.
E. coli-tainted spinach from the U.S.; cantaloupes from Costa Rica contaminated with salmonella; and pet food containing a toxic chemical imported from China — these recent safety scares have raised serious questions about the security of Canada’s food supply and sparked criticism that the government and food industry don’t do enough to ensure that food from other countries is safe.
Some fear things will only worsen as large and small grocery stores rely increasingly on food grown abroad that Canadian officials will probably never inspect.
Last year, Canada imported $19.2 billion worth of food from 195 countries and jurisdictions, according to Statistics Canada. While more than half the imports — about $11.6 billion worth — came from the U.S., Canada also spent about $756 million in China, $607 million in Brazil, $599 million in Mexico, $91 million in the Philippines, nearly $66 million in Malaysia, $26.8 million in Iran and $24 million in Ghana.
Food imports were up 21.5 per cent from 1996 to 2006, Statistics Canada says.
A major portion of the food Canadians eat will never be inspected by the federal government before it goes on store shelves. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also doesn’t scrutinize products based on their country of origin, but by the level of risk they pose.
High-risk food, such as meat, faces the most rigourous checks and 100 per cent of shipments into Canada are inspected, said Paul Mayers, executive director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s animal products directorate. The agency is also currently inspecting 100 per cent of shipments of leafy greens, like lettuce, into Canada as a result of last year’s outbreaks.
But the food inspection agency inspects less than 10 per cent of shipments of low-risk products, including a majority of fresh produce that comes into Canada.
The agency and many food experts say this “risk-based” approach helps the government focus on the biggest potential risks.
But as outbreaks and illnesses linked to foreign food mount and food imports make up a growing share of the Canadian diet, there are serious questions about whether food growers and sellers, as well as the government, are doing enough to keep Canadians’ food supply safe.
Produce safety is a relatively new concept and there are still many farms
in North America — let alone less-
developed countries — that haven’t adopted the systems needed to help prevent problems with food, said Ben Chapman, a PhD student at the University of Guelph’s plant agriculture department.
Chapman, who is doing his doctoral thesis on food handlers, has visited about 500 farms as part of his research, and says simple things like controlling water sources and having permanent, clean bathroom facilities can help prevent bacteria from getting into our food supply.
“There’s lots of different factors that lead to foodborne illness,” Chapman said. “The things that make people sick are hard to inspect for.”
Federal health officials say they’re becoming worried that fruits and vegetables from other countries are accounting for an increasingly large share of foodborne illnesses.
“We are seeing an increasing number of outbreaks linked to produce,” said Paul Sockett, director of foodborne,
waterborne and zoonotic infections at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
While imported products help keep prices down and give consumers choices, the farther away our food originates, the harder it is for the government and food industry to guarantee it’s safe.
“It’s getting worse, not better, because of the fact we’re importing more and more food from places like China, where food safety is a joke,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.
“It’s endemic, inherent in an industrialized food production system, that you have a lot of filth and disease spread.”
Foreign-grown produce has brought new types of bacteria and foodborne illness into Canada in recent years, such as a parasite found on soft fruit grown in central South America and salmonella bacteria on bean sprouts and lettuce from the United States.
The cumulative effects of foodborne illness on the Canadian economy are significant, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“This would actually translate into fairly substantive costs in terms of health care and lost productivity from time off work,” Sockett said.
Critics say it’s a major problem that Canada imports a significant amount of food from less-developed countries.
“In other countries, they’re going to still be using pesticides that are banned in Canada, so it increases our exposure to some things we’ve already decided are a problem,” said Dr. Kapil Khatter, director of health and environment at Environmental Defence, an advocacy group.
“If there are regulations in places like Mexico, they’re often not well-enforced.”
Under the current system, food suppliers and retailers are supposed to conduct quality checks and take other measures to ensure food imports are safe.
Often, that means checking shipments to ensure they have the proper documentation, said Justin Sherwood, western region vice-president of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which represents retail grocery stores.
But the industry doesn’t normally test food for pesticide levels or bacterial contamination. Those jobs are left up to the federal government.
The food inspection agency conducts random checks of food safety, but it says the industry bears significant responsibility for keeping the food supply safe.
Loblaw Cos. Ltd., A&P Canada and Sobeys Inc. all declined requests for interviews on the subject of food safety and referred questions to the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.
The industry association said Canada’s food retailers take food safety seriously and always conduct quality checks and look for proper documentation before food is allowed in the country.
“There has been significant amount of surveillance,” Sherwood said. “Grocery retailers employ qualified individuals who have expertise in food safety or quality assurance.”
But that isn’t enough to stop problems at a factory farm or production plant, such as contaminated water, or employees who fail to wash their hands or work while they’re sick, said John Kukoly, product manager of food safety and organic certification for the Quality Management Institute, which is part of the Canadian Standards Association.
Instead of relying on a piece of paper that says a product is safe, Kukoly said, governments and companies that produce and buy food should put more emphasis on adopting food safety programs on farms and enforcing clean, safe procedures from the time food is grown until it’s ready for sale.
Says Khatter: “We need to do the work at our own borders, and obviously be aware that when we are buying things from abroad we are potentially taking those kinds of risks.”
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SEVEN TYPES OF HIGH-RISK PRODUCE
All fresh produce bears some risk of becoming contaminated with bacteria, partly because it is grown outside in conditions that can’t always be controlled. But some types of produce are associated with much higher risk than others. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has identified seven fruits and vegetables that have a high risk for contamination:
SPROUTS: Associated with numerous cases of food-borne illness. Scientists believe they’re vulnerable to contamination because E. coli bacteria can enter the sprout seed and is very difficult to eliminate. The bacteria can multiply during sprouting in warm, humid conditions.
FRESH HERBS, LETTUCE: Since produce safety is still a relatively new topic, scientists aren’t sure what makes fresh herbs and lettuce more prone to contamination, but they believe it may be because it is grown so close to the ground. It is also very difficult to wash and eliminate any bacteria.
FRESH-CUT VEGETABLES: The skin of fruits and vegetables provides a layer of protection from bacteria entering and contaminating the product. When they are cut, that protection is lost and increases the likelihood that bacteria can enter the food and contaminate it.
TOMATOES: Scientists aren’t certain why tomatoes are a higher-risk product, but believe they often become contaminated in the fields and packing houses, possibly as the result of poor sanitary conditions.
MELONS: The skin of melons — cantaloupe in particular — is very vulnerable to bacteria which can become embedded and contaminate the product when it is cut open.
BERRIES: Because their surfaces are grooved, small fresh berries are at a higher risk of bacterial contamination. Raspberries present a particular risk because they have uneven surfaces and are covered with a hair-like substance.