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Porky's and the Farm

06.oct.02, Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

06.oct.02, Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Produced in Canada.
Its not a Celine Dion CD, the Stanley Cup, or those fine exemplars of Canadian cinema, the Porky's movies; it is a tomato, or a pork chop, or a peach. The U.S. and Japan have recently suggested mandatory country-of-origin labeling for many imported foods, primarily as a way to bolster sales of domestic product. This is a big deal for countries like Canada and Australia, which are serious exporters of food. Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf foods, recently said that country-of-origin labeling is just another example of food safety
masquerading as a non-tarrif trade barrier.
Probably, but why not pick up the challenge and run with it? If Canadian food is as safe as many say it is -- especially when compared to other countries -- then let's proudly proclaim the maple leaf on our $23 billion worth of food exports each year. On one condition: that the talk about safe Canadian food can be backed up by some hard, publicly-available data.
That data, and transparent access to such information, are the foundation of any food claim -- safe, organic, better for your heart, may restore hair growth.
Canadian consumers can now choose amongst a cacophony of low-fat, nutritionally-enhanced staples reflecting a range of political statements and perceived lifestyle preferences, far beyond dolphin-free tuna. And to go with the Salt Spring Island goat cheese, the all-organic carrots and the Echinacea-laced Snapple, is a veritable sideshow of hucksters and buskers, flogging their wares to the highest bidder -- these things always cost a premium -- or at least the most fashionable.
But with repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness colliding with the social desire to celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving, in what way can consumersbecome confident about the food they eat?
The federal government figures that the best way is to brand Canada, with a series of top-down, decreed standards that farmers and others in the farm-to-fork system are supposed to follow.
Individual commodities have followed such a path -- Vidalia onions gained national status in the 1970s and by 1991 were recognized as the state vegetable of Georgia -- but a country? Is it possible to have enough checks in place to ensure that the claims are true? Or could continued outbreaks of foodborne illness -- which will happen -- lead skeptical consumers to iew claims of safety and superiority with a critical eye: Buy Canada becomes Blame Canada. Food is a dominant force, not only in our social and biological lives (we have to eat) but for a resource-laden country like Canada, one of economic priority.
But as Thanksgiving approaches and we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, we must also recognize that dangers lurk; that food can cause illness, and that it usually isn't what we thought.
The U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest's latest report on what foods are most dangerous (yes, the report has significant faults but at least is designed to answer a consumer question -- what should I do) concluded that produce-related foodborne illness was on the rise, blaming "sloppy farm practices," such as the improper use of manure on producefields or using contaminated irrigation water.
Yes, fresh fruits and vegetables are a significant, if not the most significant, source of foodborne illness today in North America. The very characteristic that affords dietary benefit -- fresh -- also creates microbiological risk: Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination.
Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport fresh produce also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? The possibilities are almost endless. And just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration re-issued a three-year-old warning that children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems should not eat raw or lightly cooked sprouts, because of yet another E. coli outbreak associated with alfalfa sprouts. The FDA is clear: "Those persons who wish to reduce their risk of food-borne illness should not eat raw sprouts."
There are lots of risks out there. Is branding Canada a way to reduce them?
Forget the top-down bureaucracy, individual groups, like the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, will develop, build and maintain food safety credibility if customers demand it. Programs based on putting science into action on the farm and elsewhere, backed up by meaningful, transparent data, wins market access.
Sure, the branding of these programs along with other Canadian initiatives such as Cattle ID program and the Canadian Quality Assurance program for pork can be used to gain market access in the US, but we are only as strong as our weakest link. Branding Canadian food as safe becomes a promise that if broken may have dire consequences. If Canada happens to lose its BSE-free status in the future how will the problem influence produce exports, or conversely, would a salmonella outbreak on fresh fruit, such as the one at the A&P in Bracebridge, Ont. last week, cause a drop in chicken exports? Maybe "Produced in Canada" should remain with hockey, has-been singers and low budget movies.
But by all means, individuals and groups should continue -- as they always have -- to enter the international arena and come out winners.

Ben Chapman is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph