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Farm-to-Fork Food Safety

03.jul.00, Douglas Powell, National Post A14 Comment Opinion

    Canadians took to their backyards and barbecues this Canada Day with apprehension: Is the drinking water safe? Are the hamburgers safe? What are these mysterious bugs with the long names that can wreak havoc on humans?
The mere mention of Walkerton, Ont., will conjure up different images for different people. Same with E. coli O157:H7 and the massive recall of ground beef in the news recently. But admonishments by government to simply cook beef are insufficient.
The Canadian Health Coalition says the recall is evidence of a meat inspection system failing miserably, and, not surprisingly given its union backers, advocates more inspectors standing on a line, looking for evidence of pathogenic bacteria that can¹t be seen. David Suzuki and others say the culprit is factory farming and the answer is a return to the pastoral settings of yesteryear, without acknowledging that E. coli O157:H7 is present in 1% to 15% of all ruminants -- cattle, sheep, deer -- and that big facilities have access to more effective waste control measures. For example, in late May a group of youngsters attended a scout camp in Scotland. They pitched their tents in a field and enjoyed the outdoors. By the end of the outing, however, 35 children had developed diarrhea and testing confirmed E. coli O157:H7 in 18 of them. Health investigators found a flock of sheep that grazed in the field also tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, as did some surface puddles. Contact with fecal material and subsequent cross-contamination is the most likely explanation, as food and water consumed during the weekend tested negative.
These are hardly what anyone would describe as factory-farmed animals.  In other words, the town of Walkerton and the bacterium, E. coli O157:H7, have become stigmatized. Stigmata or symbols, used by Romans past to designate social undesirables, are short-cuts used by consumers and citizens to conclude that something is bad; details become irrelevant, and through repetition, opinions are transformed into rock-hard beliefs. Many may be sketchy about the links between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) and new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, but the term "British beef" is a short-cut to "yuk." Unfortunately, industry and government aren¹t much better with their continued calls to simply cook hamburger. Pat Scarlett of the Beef Information Centre (BIC) reminded consumers that "Canadians can control their own health though simple food handling methods," while officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) repeat that "it is unreasonable to expect pathogen-free meat" and consumers need to cook their meat.
    As Dale Hancock from Washington State University often asks his audiences, I challenge CFIA, BIC and other acronyms to safely cook a hamburger. The potential for cross-contamination is enormous. Once on the grill, can meat thermometers be used effectively on thin hamburger patties? Cooking until the juices run clear rather than pink offers a false sense of security -- examples of pink hamburgers that have been safely cooked to 71C (160F) and undercooked hamburgers with no pink are abundant. Another Washington State researcher found temperature variations of up to 15F after inserting temperature sensors into hamburger patties. That means to ensure a hamburger is 160F throughout the patty, a single thermometer reading would have to be 175F. A hamburger at 175F looks more like a lump of coal.
    Yes, consumers have a role in food safety. So do the government, industry and others in a farm-to-fork food safety system. What is needed is a comprehensive plan to reduce E. coli O157:H7 using a variety of interventions. Many of the pieces are already in place. Farmers fund research to identify on-farm control strategies; the large slaughterhouses are using steam pasteurization chambers and other systems; many processors conduct their own testing and require continual reductions and improvements in pathogen numbers on raw hamburger.
    What is missing is leadership from the federal government, especially when compared with the United States. At noon on Jan. 19, 1993, William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as the 42nd President. A few hours later, Dr. John Kobayashi of the King County Health Department in Washington State issued the first warning linking consumption of undercooked hamburgers with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, sometimes known as hamburger disease. The outbreak eventually killed four young children and sickened more than 700.
    By August, 1994, Michael R. Taylor was appointed chief of USDA¹s Food Safety and Inspection Service. By mid-October, Mr. Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much contamination existed from E. coli O157:H7. The 5,000 samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants alike "to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures." Positive samples would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale. Taylor also said USDA would stop blaming consumers if they got sick from eating contaminated product.
    There is an old saying that a country cannot test its way to a safe food supply. And as detection methodologies improve, bacteria such as O157 are found in increasing numbers. But testing can provide some baseline data against which improvements can be measured. When the U.S. Agriculture Department began implementing mandatory HACCP, or the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points food safety management systems in the nation's larger slaughterhouses in 1996, it also instituted a series of microbial tests to verify that processes were working as they were supposed to -- and improving. The results are released annually. And while there is continual public debate about the merits of such tests, at least there is debate: Canada has no such publicly available system and even if it exists behind layers of bureaucracy, mere citizens wouldn¹t know.

     The best way to avoid stigmatization is to be able to demonstrate continual improvement and risk reduction. Canadian government and industry need to learn these lessons before the next outbreak. As Mr. Hancock says, when someone says risk can be avoided by simply cooking hamburgers, I make a note not to eat dinner at their house.