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Enduring traditions turned into nightmares

19.nov.04, Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

It’s time that health authorities take responsibility for their decisions, and be prepared to provide the public with sound evidence as to why new rules are made and old ones are emphasized.

19.nov.04, Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
First they tell my Mom that she can still make her scalloped potatoes for the church Daffodil Luncheon, but just not in her own kitchen, then I hear that I can still enjoy sushi with my friends down on Toronto's Queen St., just not with fresh seafood. What’s next?
In July, the Elgin-St. Thomas Health Unit was accused of acting like health police and described as a force capable of damaging important traditions in rural life; this because church organizers were told they couldn’t cook food at home and sell it to the public.
By August churches were on the defense and at least one church seemed to have caught on to inspectors’ watchful eyes. In Lambton County, Ontario, there were reports that a church was going underground with its annual chicken barbeque to thwart the nasty health inspectors.
In September, provincial health types dictated that sushi in Ontario could no longer be made with fresh fish, another tradition ruined because of an increased emphasis on food safety. Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai’s temper would reach boiling point given the same ruling.
So what’s going on?
In the past churches have relied on its members to prepare food at home and bring it to public events to raise money. This practice has never before been frowned upon. I have fond memories as a child watching my mom carefully prepare those pans of scalloped potatoes in the family kitchen. This was back when a food scare wasn’t something you cooked up at home -- although it probably happened. Now E. coli O157, hepatitis A, and salmonella are all household terms. Endless documentation exists on how food preparers inadvertently introduce these harmful pathogens into cooking.
I can appreciate how, in earnest attempts to provide for people, that the church shouldn’t have to worry about the fine details of food preparation; they’re not in the food business. But food law and common sense from reports of recent outbreaks in the media is unchanging: anyone serving food to the public must be concerned with safe food handling practices.
Like restaurants, churches have a duty of care to anyone who eats food at their functions. In fact, you would think that churches would be more concerned than anybody about the health and safety of others. Proper precautions to prevent outbreaks of food poisoning must be undertaken and demonstrable. The old adage “we’ve been doing this for more than a decade and have never had a problem” is no longer acceptable. Even with the best of intentions individuals are not equally attentive to the hazards of cross-contamination, hot holding, and cold storage of food. Nobody in Georgetown, PEI meant to sicken 30 people this week with a ham dinner in a bid to raise money for the local sports complex – but it happened.
Health inspectors aren’t interested in shutting church events down, as some seem to believe (I’m sure even a few health inspectors go to church). They’re interested in protecting public health and making sure that nobody gets sick. If I were a church organizer I would be looking to the health inspectors for their advice. These people are invaluable resources who can help to develop a strategy to control food hazards and ensure that food preparers understand the basics of safe food preparation, things as simple as washing your hands. Just ask the three individuals who had to go to the hospital after eating their ham dinners in PEI if health inspectors should wait for a major outbreak before looking for potential problems.
As for the ban on fresh seafood in sushi, I understand this to be another precautionary step in the fight against foodborne illness. I also understand that people like myself might not even realize that fresh frozen seafood was substituted for fresh in my sushi (forgive me Chef Sakai): So why the dismay and cries of a government showdown?
There are no reports of foodborne disease linked to the consumption of fresh seafood in sushi here in Ontario. Fair enough. However, the issue may be in how foodborne disease is identified and reported. Mistaking foodborne illness for the 24-hr flu and substantial underreporting of illness to health authorities is a major problem. Just because there are no reports doesn’t mean its not happening.
I suspect the real reason for this recent outrage has little to do with the ego of sushi-eaters, and more to with the fact that nobody in the health domain was taking accountability for the ruling. It’s time that health authorities take responsibility for their decisions, and be prepared to provide the public with sound evidence as to why new rules are made and old ones are emphasized.
The public can handle this information and might be more agreeable with policy if they had it.

Brae Surgeoner is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.
bsurgeon@uoguelph.ca