Today CBC launched an in-depth report on food safety in Canada in light of the recent E. coli outbreak and the not-so-long-ago listeriosis outbreak. Looking at the big picture, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency estimates that there are approximately 11 million cases of food-borne illnesses every year (1).
- Is our food becoming more or less safe?
- How does the safety of food in Canada compare to the rest of the world?
- What can be done to improve food safety?
What do the numbers say? It is difficult to determine if overall our food is becoming more or less safe. While it appears that our numbers of confirmed E. coli cases are decreasing, salmonella poisoning seems to be on the rise (2). A recent CBC report suggests that no, our food is not getting safer. They cite a paper in progress by Denis Curtis at the University of Guelph – E. coli rates in Canada are some of the highest among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Curtis also asserts that Canada has almost twice the rate of E. coli cases as the U.S. (2).
Although still in-progress, this research supports the Conference Board of Canada 2012 report for Improving Food Safety in Canada: Toward a More Risk-Responsive System, which found that in general Canada had slightly higher rate of food-borne illnesses than the U.S. (3). (here’s the Globe and Mail summary, as the full report is not available free of charge).
How does our current system fare? The Canadian Medical Association suggests the current food safety system is lax and stricter regulations are required to protect Canadians. In their editorial they argue there is inadequate surveillance and an inability to tract the suspected foods from their source, to processing, and finally to your table (4).
When we look at the how Canada sits on the world scene the “World Ranking: 2010 Food Safety Performance” found that of the top 17 countries belonging to OECD, Canada ranked high in consumer affairs which includes (5):
- Incidence of reported illness by food-borne pathogens;
- Rate of inspections and audits;
- Food safety education programs;
- Labelling and indications of allergens; and
- Ease of access to public health information.
Conversely, Canada’s food industries and government agencies rank 15th out of 16 on traceability — knowing where the food comes from, how it is processed and how it gets to you, the consumer. This is an important aspect of food safety because if the food chain cannot be traced it is difficult to impossible to determine where contaminated food came from or where along the way there were unsafe practices (5).
Furthermore, it has been suggested that Canada’s food-borne illness reporting system is not up to par, making comparisons difficult and obscuring the true picture. The National Studies on Acute Gastrointestinal Illness (NSAGI) was set up to determine baseline prevalence rates of self-reported acute gastrointestinal illnesses and quantify the under-reporting of acute gastrointestinal illnesses. The Canada Communicable Disease Report from the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2008 estimated that only one in 200 cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses are actually reported. Furthermore, they found that the average number of episodes of acute gastrointestinal illnesses is 1.3 per person-year (1).
As for what can be done…we think we should refer you to Rick Mercer who sums it up quite nicely in his rant and has a great solution!
On a more serious note, one suggestion is that the current system of having Agriculture Canada overseeing both the agriculture industry and food safety creates a conflict of interest (increasing food safety will likely increase the costs to industry) and the two should be separated (2).
Be Food Safe and look for the full CBC report tonight by Tara Weber!
- Thomas MK and Majowicz, SE. Burden of actue gastrointestinal illness in Canada, 1999-2007: Interim summary of NSAGI activities. Canada Communicable Disease Report 34 (05); 2008. Available at: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/ccdr-rmtc/08vol34/dr-rm3405b-eng.php
- Johnson T. Is Canada’s Food Safe? 2012. CBC News retrieved November 19, 2012 from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/11/18/calgary-food-safety-review.html on
- Conference Board of Canada. Improving Food Safety in Canada: Toward a More Risk-Responsive System; 2012. Retrieved November 19, 2012 from: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/e-Library/abstract.aspx?did=4671
- Flegel K. et al. Food in Canada: Eat at your own risk. CMAJ 2011; 183 (18). Available at: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/183/18/E1274.
- Charlebois S et al. World Ranking: 2010 Food Safety Performance.