Canada: What's next for food supply after deadly outbreak?

Updated Fri. Jan. 2 2009 6:11 AM ET

Source of Article:


Andrea Janus, News

Food recalls, a Listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 Canadians and food-borne illnesses across the United States and Europe made many question the safety of our food supply.

Now that the outbreak is over and the company behind the crisis has agreed to compensate those affected, a food safety expert says the new frontier in food safety is a number of new technologies that might seem scary to consumers, but will help rid the food supply of potentially harmful bacteria.

Scientists are always developing strategies for ridding foods of bacteria, such as Listeria monocytogenes, which last summer also sickened dozens of people.

However, many bacteria, including Listeria, are notoriously difficult to control, making it impossible for scientists to completely eradicate the threat of food-borne diseases, says Mansel Griffiths, senior industrial research chair in dairy microbiology and director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph.

Therefore, consumers also have a role to play in ensuring they don't fall ill from foods in their own refrigerators,

"When you're dealing with humans, you expect some problems at some times at some points along the way, that there's no way that you can ever reduce the risk of food-borne illness to zero," Griffiths told in a telephone interview. "What you can do is try to minimize the risk."

The Institute was launched eight years ago and is comprised of scientists devoted to food-safety issues.

According to Griffiths, a number of innovations are being developed to reduce the risk of food contamination and stem the proliferation of potentially harmful bacteria.

These include:

       Ways to process foods using pulse-electric fields and UV light to kill bacteria.

       Technologies that will reduce the shedding of E. coli 157 bacteria from cattle feces, which can contaminate the environment and, in particular, fresh produce.

       Identifying compounds naturally found in the human stomach that can prevent some bacteria from colonizing in the gut to reduce the risk of illness. These compounds may one day be added to foods to give consumers' own digestive systems an extra bacteria-fighting boost.

Some breakthroughs are controversial.

Irradiation, which involves briefly exposing foods to X-rays, Gamma rays or electron beams to kill harmful bacteria, has for years been approved for use in Canada on wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, potatoes, onions, whole and ground spices and dehydrated seasonings.

According to spokesperson Paul Duchesne, Health Canada is in the middle of the regulatory process to extend irradiation to include fresh and frozen ground beef, fresh and frozen poultry and pre-packaged fresh, frozen, prepared and dried shrimp and prawns, as well as mangoes.

"For any other product to which food producers would like to apply this technology, such as ready-to-eat deli meats, a submission must be received by Health Canada for scientific review," Duchesne told in an email.

Some scientists, including Dr. Samuel Epstein of the Cancer Prevention Coalition in the United States, argue that irradiation leads to by-products known as unique radiolytic products, which are carcinogenic (or cancer-causing).

However, these arguments have not gained mainstream traction, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), have deemed irradiation to be safe.

Another promising, yet troubling, innovation is essentially the adding of viruses that only attack and kill bacteria, and not human cells, to foods.

The FDA has approved this process to control Listeria in ready-to-eat products, Griffiths said.

However, an impediment to government approval of this and other initiatives may be consumer perception, he said.

"If you told the consumer that you were adding viruses to food, there's probably going to be some reaction to that, although these viruses are completely harmless to humans," Griffiths said. "So a lot of it is perception."

In the meantime, some changes have been made to the food safety system since the summer's deadly Listeriosis outbreak.

In September, Health Canada approved the use of the chemical sodium diacetate in meat, poultry and fish products to inhibit the growth of the Listeria.

Maple Leaf Foods, the company at the heart of the outbreak, has taken apart and scoured the Toronto plant that produced the tainted meat.

The company has said it will consider using sodium diacetate in the manufacture of its products, and has appointed a new chief food safety officer, who begins work in the new year.

The federal government is also planning an investigation into how the Listeriosis outbreak occurred. However, the fate of that inquiry is unclear given the ongoing political crisis in Ottawa.

And finally, the CFIA has identified goals to improve food safety in 2009.

According to its 2008/2009 Report on Plans and Priorities, the CFIA has goals that include, "improving and modernizing inspections approaches and maintaining capacity to predict and respond to emergencies."

This includes working with Health Canada on the Food Safety Action Plan, which covers issues ranging from regulating food imports and preventing against food tampering to working with the food industry to improve safety controls.

There is not timeline yet for when the Action Plan may come into effect.

However, all the talk of killing bacteria in foods and improving inspection and prevention practices does not diminish the role that proper food-handling techniques play in reducing the risk of illness, Griffiths said.

These include:

       Cooking foods properly

       Avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen (i.e. using a different cutting board for vegetables and meat)

       Ensure refrigerator is working properly (be sure it is 4 Celsius or colder)

       Wash hands at appropriate times

       Don't eat ready-to-eat foods that are past their best-before date



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