Lax standards to blame for rise in food recalls, experts say

From Monday's Globe and Mail

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There has been a stunning increase in the number of products pulled from the country's grocery stores and fast-food restaurants due to contamination by a sometimes deadly bacterium, and experts are proclaiming this as proof of a long-simmering crisis in the safety of Canada's food supply.

More than 440 food products have been recalled so far this year because of exposure to Listeria monocytogenes, including 323 related to a single production line at a Toronto meat processing plant. During the five years between 2003 and 2007, by comparison, the food-borne pathogen was mentioned in only 19 product recalls.

Food-safety experts say the surge reflects more testing and rising concern about Canada's relatively lax standards for food safety.

"Right now, we're walking in a fog," said Rick Holley, a food-safety expert at the University of Manitoba. "We don't have any idea what foods are making us sick in this country."

Some experts said the flurry of recalls is evidence that the federal government is not doing enough to protect the food chain. The federal agency responsible for food safety is already under siege for the hands-off approach it adopted this year by allowing the industry to conduct more of its own food testing.

There are also suggestions that Canada does not have adequate surveillance systems for tracking food-borne pathogens.

Canada also has the lowest standards among the United States and European Union countries governing how much exposure consumers can safely have to listeria, said Amir Attaran, research chair in law and population health at the University of Ottawa.

Under the United States' zero-tolerance policy, ready-to-eat foods sold in that country cannot contain any listeria bacterium. In Canada, ready-to-eat foods that have a shelf life of less than 10 days, including hard cheeses and salami, are allowed to contain up to 100 listeria bacteria in every gram.

A Health Canada policy paper says there is little evidence that low levels of listeria will cause the disease known as listeriosis, even in susceptible individuals. It is not clear whether this policy will be reviewed as part of the federal government's probe into a tainted-meat crisis that has so far claimed 18 lives and left another 30 people seriously ill across Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the probe before the campaign for the Oct. 14 federal election began.

"There will be a public investigation into the food system, and we're in an election campaign where we are required to be as neutral as possible, which is somewhat hard these days with the number of political hot potatoes related to food," said a Health Canada spokesman.

The crisis involving lunch meats made by Maple Leaf Foods has served as a wake-up call for both the industry and the federal government. Many companies are doing more frequent testing of their products and, as a result, detecting food-borne bacteria that might have gone undetected in the past.

"Now that you've had one company with its unhappy experience, others are seized by panic," said Prof. Attaran.

For most healthy people, listeria causes only short term gastrointestinal problems. But for those with weakened immune systems, as well as elderly people and pregnant women, it is one of the most dangerous food-borne pathogens.

Health officials are concerned about the outbreak of listeriosis linked to Maple Leaf because the percentage of people who die from the illness is much higher than it is from better-known food-borne pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.

Listeria bacteria are widespread in the natural world and can grow in a refrigerator, so there is no way to completely get rid of them. However, with proper regulation, processed foods and deli meats can be perfectly safe, said Johnmark Opondo, acting deputy medical health officer for Saskatchewan.

"The oversight and the testing have to be done upfront, long before the product is available to the consumer," he said.

But figures compiled by The Globe and Mail on the number of food recalls reveal that some of the testing did not appear to happen until the product was on retail shelves or had already been consumed.

A total of 323 varieties of deli meats, frozen pizzas and packaged sandwiches made with Maple Leaf products were recalled, the figures show.

The listeria recalls go well beyond products made by Maple Leaf. Another eight food producers have sounded the alarm since Aug. 17, the day Maple Leaf issued its first recall.

These companies have recalled a total of 118 products that may be contaminated with listeria, according to a tally of health-hazard alerts issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. These include pre-washed mushrooms, cheeses made in Ontario and Quebec, submarine sandwiches made by a Newfoundland snack-food company, and frozen creamed-salmon dinners distributed by Meals on Wheels to the elderly.

Officials in Quebec have pulled about a dozen soft cheeses off the market as they grapple with a separate outbreak of listeria in that province that has so far sickened 28 people.

Private Recipes Ltd., a Brampton, Ont.-based company that makes frozen dinners delivered by Meals on Wheels, recalled a salmon dinner on Sept. 12 because it may be contaminated with listeria. Nigel Richards, marketing manager of the company, said the bacterium was detected through routine testing.

The company, which recently changed its name to Apetito Group, produced 1,850 of the meals in early June, so many of them had been consumed well before the recall, Mr. Richards said. But he stressed that even the elderly are at little risk of becoming ill because the meal must be heated, a process that should kill any bacteria.

"We've had absolutely no complaints and no reported incidents of illness," he said. "This is a precautionary measure."

Off the shelf

The number of food recalls due to listeria contamination has soared to 446 so far this year after a tainted-meat crisis that has claimed 18 lives.

123 products involving foods not related to the Maple Leaf recall.

323 products containing Maple Leaf meats.




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