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Food safety can we afford not to eat the cost?

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Source of Article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080903.wcofood04/BNStory/specialComment/home

To some of us, each passing day makes sterile food look more appealing - too bad it doesn't taste very good. It seems that nearly every time we change the way food is processed, we're outsmarted by an unrecognized or underestimated food-borne pathogen. No safety system can provide protection against every threat to Canadians, but there are ways to reduce the risks.

Safe food is the responsibility of producers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators and consumers. It is naive to think that safety can be tested or inspected into food - it must be built in. Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency can be effective in deterring fraudulent activity by the minority, it is not the primary determinant of food safety for the majority, who are motivated to produce consistently safe food in order to remain in business.

Pro-active, company-driven programs such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, combined with CFIA audit verification, can provide adequate assurance, with enhanced inspection triggered by poor audit performance. Recently, in the United States, a variety of external pressures have moved government inspection agencies to emphasize final product testing. However, sampling plans used for end product testing don't have enough power to guarantee food safety. In addition, this approach will destroy any lingering value from HACCP.

Canada needs reform to reorganize the roles of federal, provincial and municipal food inspection agencies. The CFIA has overall responsibility, but more co-ordination is needed. Federal registration is required only if a plant ships its products to another province or country, and inspection rigour is influenced by the type of food rather than its safety risk. These issues must be quickly resolved, and a consistent regulatory framework must be established to govern all food - World Trade Organization commitments oblige Canada to accept food imports that meet the least stringent standards for similar foods manufactured domestically.

Canada's current food safety policy is firmly based on subjective reasoning. While there are fragmented efforts to monitor food-borne illness, there is no national enteric disease outbreak surveillance system to objectively assess food-borne pathogen occurrence in humans or to identify the products that make us ill most frequently. Without this information, we can't effectively manage risk. This system will require investment, but without it, we will be moving forward blindly.

Efforts can't end with the adoption of a more active surveillance program. Critics will be quick to point out that despite the implementation of a similar U.S. plan, Food Net, Americans continue to experience food safety crises almost weekly. What's missing? One important but overlooked element in the food safety systems in Canada, the United States and most of the developed world is the impact of nutrient recycling.

In agriculture, responsible environmental stewardship involves recycling soil organic matter by applying manure to cropland and pastures. This manure is frequently contaminated by pathogens shed by animals. Meanwhile, animal and plant waste is recycled as feed for food and companion animals. These activities can unwittingly recycle zoonotic pathogens, which can cause infectious diseases to jump from animals to people.

Trade in animal feed and feed ingredients spans the globe, an industry worth roughly $25-billion annually. Most countries, including Canada, prohibit import of feed and ingredients containing pathogens, metals or toxins that may affect animal health, but do not require the absence of zoonotic pathogens. In North America and most European countries, although more than 25 per cent of feed and ingredients contain these pathogens, no action is taken unless pets die or humans become ill from pet food.

Animal feed can continuously introduce zoonotic bacterial pathogens to farms and our food supply. Evidence to support this claim is controversial in most case studies, but not all of them. The reality is that with increased intense animal production, we are seeing these pathogens in feed and food animals where they haven't been before. Motivation to tackle the issue is weak given the background occurrence of zoonotic pathogens on the farm. But the results could be dramatic, like they were with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Fixing Canada's food safety system will be expensive. But food-borne illness currently costs each Canadian more than $1,000 a year. Can we afford the unnecessary morbidity and loss of life?

Richard A. Holley is a professor in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba.


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