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Unsolved mysteries

15.jan.04, Dr. Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Nineteen-year-old Lewanne DeBaie was one of the 85 people who got sick after attending a high school graduation party at a banquet hall in Mississauga, Ont., in June 2003. Forty of her classmates tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, a lousy graduation gift. The cause was never determined.
A two-year-old in Calgary died from E. coli O157:H7 in July. The cause was never determined. Two cases of E. coli O157:H7 in children were linked to visits to the Canada Agriculture Museum's Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa in July, and some of the animals subsequently tested positive for the bacterium. But the exact cause of illness was never determined. Six people in New Brunswick last fall came down with E. coli O157:H7; cause undetermined. Yet when an animal tested positive for mad cow disease in Canada in May 2003, and then again in late Dec. in Washington State, the full force of investigative capabilities was put into action. Daily updates; trace-forwards; trace-backs; DNA testing; trade missions; some $92 million in new money for surveillance. The response was warranted given the uncertainties surrounding mad cow disease and the potential devastating economic impacts. But is it possible to have a little more public attention focused on food safety? That's the microbial kind. Yes, the uncertainties surrounding BSE warrant cautionary responses. But there are many certainties around the foodborne illnesses that will afflict 1-in-4 North Americans each and every year that should warrant much wider public attention in Canada. Foodborne illness in Canada is full of unknowns. Who can remember what they ate a couple of days ago? Who knows if food handlers washed their hands? Who knows about the farm practices where the food or even water originated? Tough questions, ones, that challenge epidemiologists, those trackers of disease linkages, on a daily basis.
But is there a point when the accumulated unknowns go beyond the inherent difficulties of tracking such outbreaks, and enter the black hole of complacency?
Are Canadians lulled into a false sense of security based largely on wishful thinking?
Mythology seems to be the dominant discourse food safety in Canada today. My vet says that conservatively, at least 20 per cent of her clients are subjecting their pets to the raw food diet in a mystical belief that natural is somehow better, abdicating the responsibility we all have to use knowledge to enhance the human (and animal) condition. Media plays a role in the public perception of risk. My favorite tale after another month of journalists looking for some missing angle in the BSE-epic was the television news producer who wanted to do a piece about how organic was safer than conventional-raised beef in terms of BSE. I told him that in terms of human health, given the control measures in place in North America, that BSE in Canada posed an exceedingly low health risk to Canadians, and that meat from organically-produced beef posed a somewhat lower risk, but was not risk-free, because of uncertainties with the origins of animals, feed sources and other factors, as best outlined by the Royal Commission that investigated the BSE outbreak in the U.K.
I told the producer that the real missing story about in the BSE fury was that it overshadowed other risks in the food supply and was attracting a disproportionate amount of media attention. I said there had been at least 20 print reports documenting just such a discrepancy in U.S. media but that Canadian media had yet to pick up on this angle - if he was looking for a new angle.
The producer replied that he had a guy in the U.S. who insisted that many Alzheimer's cases were really misdiagnosed and could be variant Creutzfelt-Jacob disease. I told the producer he missed the point.
There needs to be a balance between the theoretical risk of the unknown and the everyday risk resulting in vomit or worse.
Food safety is being enhanced all along the farm-to-fork food system - on farms, in distribution, in processing and at retail. Local health units are staffed with experienced, knowledgeable individuals who do their best to track down the cause of illness when it occurs. Science is developing better tools. But until there is a much broader awareness and effort to address overall food safety concerns, thousands will have to linger with the unknowns. As Lewanne's mother Patricia was quoted as saying at the time of her daughter's illness, "If they can send a man to the moon, they could have found the source. It's crap. That's how I feel, and so does my daughter."

Douglas Powell is an associate professor and scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.