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Know the Risks of What you Eat

22.feb.02, Douglas Powell, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record A9 Opinion

22.feb.02, Douglas Powell, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record A9 Opinion
On Feb. 13, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a voluntary recall notice for Delhaven Orchards brand of non- pasteurized fresh apple cider, with a "best before" date of Jan. 5, 2002, because it may contain E. coli O157:H7 bacteria -- the same one that has sickened thousands and killed hundreds over the past two decades.
The cider was unpasteurized and largely distributed to small markets and retail outlets in southwestern Ontario. And unlike the U.S., where warning labels have been mandatory on all unpasteurized juices since 1998, there was no label to inform consumers.
More importantly, why was cider with a "best before" date of Jan. 5 recalled on Feb. 13? The feds blame the province, which conducted the tests as part of its baseline sampling program last year. The province says the federal government had additional testing requirements, which delayed the reporting.
At least the province is conducting baseline studies to focus resources where problems may exist. Food safety -- the actual job of preventing potentially dangerous food or water reaching consumers -- is not about public perception, it's about biology. However, the mere presence of E. coli O157:H7 should set off alarm bells.
The U.S.-based Institute of Food Technologists touched on such matters in a report issued Wednesday -- a report that garnered national media coverage -- which concluded that despite significant success at improving the safety of the nation's food supply, current science on which safety is based does not sufficiently protect North Americans from emerging issues inherent to a complex food supply (www.ift.org/govtrelations/microfs/). Furthermore, the increasing use of manure as fertilizer poses the risk of spreading harmful bacteria to food, either by contaminating irrigation water or coming into direct contact with crops.
Morris Potter, a top epidemiologist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who chaired the study by government and university scientists, was quoted as saying that, "The job of assuring microbiological food safety is unending," but that consumers "should take heart, however, because of the progress that has been made."
The scientists say in their report that it will be "practically impossible" to keep hotdogs and similar precooked meats free of Listeria monocytongenes because the bacterium is so common in the environment.
There was no coverage of either of these events in Canada -- with a populace supposedly concerned about food safety -- except for a local story about the cider recall.
Instead, Canadian media focused on Foodwatch, a rejigged group set up apparently to monitor risks in the Canadian food supply. The intent is noble; the execution sucks.
Foodwatch recycles old information to play into consumers' perceived fear of chemicals and drugs in the food supply -- which in many cases actually make food safer -- to generate fear rather than inform. Both CBC and CTV fell hook, line and sinker, broadcasting messages that elevated the hypothetical risks which may leave consumers complacent about the actual microbial risks in the food supply. It drains resources, so that regulators are caught responding to what is in the news rather then what may make people sick. And it undermines the efforts of everyone in the farm-to-fork food chain to provide safe, affordable food.
Yes, federal and provincial governments need to be more transparent with the data they collect, but at the same time, groups such as Foodwatch and Canadian media need to focus on basic steps that could enhance the safety of the food supply, rather than creating phantom fears.
For example, Foodwatch recommends that consumers should, "Buy outside the corporate food system: Join a co-op, buy fair trade products, support your local corner store, buy ecological or organic, support a farmers market or field-to-table program."
It's calling for support for places such as the co-operative farm located south of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, B.C., which was linked to five children becoming ill and two hospitalized with hemolytic-uremic syndrome, caused by E. coli O157:H7 in raw goats milk in August 2001.
Again, there was little media coverage or outrage.
Ask your local growers what they are doing to reduce the risk of microbial contamination. That's what the Institute of Food Technologists report focuses on. That's what major retailers are starting to ask of their suppliers. That's what Canadian media should focus on.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.