More Canadians suffer food poisoning

Carly Weeks, The Ottawa Citizen


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Up to 13 million Canadians, more than 40 per cent of the population, will suffer from food-borne illnesses this year, an epidemic that medical experts say costs up to $1.3 billion annually in lost productivity and medical expenses.

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 -- 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 food imported from other countries is safe to eat.

It's an epidemic some fear will only worsen as large and small grocery stores rely increasingly on food grown on foreign soil that Canadian officials will probably never see or inspect.

In 2006, Canada imported $19.2 billion worth of food from 195 countries and jurisdictions, according to Statistics Canada. While the bulk of imports -- about $11.6 billion -- came from the U.S., Canada also imported about $756 million in food from China, $607 million from Brazil and $599 million from Mexico. Imports from the Philippines hit $91 million, nearly $66 million from Malaysia, about $26.8 million from Iran and $24 million from Ghana.

Food imports increased 21.5 per cent from 1996 to 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

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 the country of origin, but instead looks more closely at high-risk food products.

High-risk food, such as meat, faces the most rigorous 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 agency inspects less than 10 per cent of shipments of low-risk products, which includes a majority of fresh produce that comes into Canada.

It's a "risk-based" approach to food safety -- which the agency and many food experts say helps the government manage resources and focus on areas that have the greatest potential risk.

But as the number of outbreaks and illnesses linked to foreign food continues to mount and an increasing proportion of the Canadian diet is made up of food imported from other countries, there are serious questions about whether food growers and sellers, as well as the government, are doing enough to keep what Canadians eat 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. Mr. 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 in our food supply.

"There's lots of different factors that lead to foodborne illness," Mr. Chapman said. "The things that make people sick are hard to inspect for."

Federal health officials say they're becoming more and more worried about the fact fresh fruits and vegetables shipped to Canada from other countries, including those with lower safety standards, are making up an increasingly large proportion of cases of foodborne illness.

"One of the more recent trends that we've observed that is of some concern to us is 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, which estimates up to 13 million people in this country will suffer from a foodborne illness this year. "I'm talking about plants, fruit, types of materials, even nuts. A lot of this, actually, is coming into the country rather than the stuff that's actually produced within Canada itself."

While imported products help keep prices down and give consumers choices, the reality is that the farther away our food originates, the more difficult 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 into terms of health care and lost productivity from time off work," Mr. Sockett said.

A growing number of critics say it's a major problem that Canada imports a significant amount of food from less-developed countries in South and Central America, Africa and Asia that may not have, or properly enforce, strict farm safety guidelines to keep food from becoming contaminated with harmful bacteria, high levels of pesticides or chemicals that are banned from use in Canada.

"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.

Under the current system, food suppliers and retailers are supposed to conduct quality checks and take other measures to ensure the food they bring into the country is safe. Often, that means checking food shipments to make sure they have the proper documentation required for imports, said Justin Sherwood, western region vice-president of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, an industry association that represents retail grocery stores.

But the industry doesn't normally conduct tests for pesticide levels or bacterial contamination of food. It's a job the industry says it leaves up to the federal government.

Yet, while the CFIA conducts random checks to see if food is safe, the agency says the industry bears a significant amount of responsibility for keeping the food supply safe.

Loblaw Cos. Ltd., A&P Canada and Sobeys Inc. all declined requests for interviews on the topic of food safety and deferred all questions to the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.

Sobeys, "along with the other members of the CCGD, has a common position on food safety and food safety practices," Andrew Walker, vice-president of communications and corporate affairs at Sobeys Inc., wrote in an e-mail.

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 a significant amount of surveillance," Mr. Sherwood said.

But that is not enough to stop problems on the factory farm or in the production plant, such as a contaminated water supply, employees who forget to wash their hands or work in the field while 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.

Governments and companies that produce and buy food should put a greater emphasis on adopting on-farm food-safety programs and enforcing clean, safe procedures from the time food is grown until it's ready for sale, he said.

"Realistically, you can't test incoming materials for every possibility," he said. "What you have to do is ensure the systems are in place, the management systems are in place."

The consumer demand for fresh food at low prices and subsequent competition between producers, suppliers and grocery retailers can make food safety a unique and difficult challenge for government and industry.

"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," Dr. Khatter said.

Tomorrow: A double standard for domestic producers

Thursday: The meat industry: A success story -- with a cost

Fresh or Foul?

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. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has identified seven fruits and vegetables that have a high risk of contamination:

- Sprouts: Associated with numerous cases of foodborne illness. Scientists believe they're vulnerable to contamination because E. coli bacteria can enter the sprout seed and is difficult

to eliminate. The bacteria can multiply during sprouting in warm, humid conditions.

- Fresh herbs and 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 difficult to wash.

- 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 layer is lost and increases the likelihood that bacteria can enter the food and contaminate it.

- Tomatoes: Scientists aren't positive why tomatoes are a higher-risk product, but believe that 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 that can become embedded and contaminate the fruit when it is cut.

- Berries: Because their surfaces are grooved, small fresh berries are at a higher risk of bacterial contamination. Since they have uneven surfaces and a hair-like substance covering them, raspberries represent a particular risk.



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