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Food Safety Claims Done In By Data

03.mar.99, Doug Powell, Farm and Country

“Research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses.”

That line has been repeated so many times, even more so since the launch of the FightBac food safety consumer education program last November, that I had to ask, “What was the research?”  My associate, Sarah Grant, first e-mailed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) via its web site, because the federal agriculture minister had used the line a few weeks ago.  No luck there. We were referred to Health Canada. After a few messages, a couple of tables with an explanatory note arrived.

At last, the data. Except it showed that known causes happen pretty much everywhere except the home.

That’s a bit overstated, but still, the data sucked. First, it represented known foodborne illness in Canada from 1990 to 1993. In March 1999, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control published active foodborne surveillance data from the end of 1998.  Weekly updates are on their web site. The best we can do in Canada is 1993, and I have to buy the publication. Health Canada says it has plans to publish its data on the web ...soon.

Of the 23,322 known cases of foodborne illness in Canada between 1990 and 1993, 18,450 or 79 per cent were of unknown origin. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 70 per cent were traced to food service; 11 per cent were traced to the home; four per cent were retail in origin.

The second table contained data on foodborne illness cases due to mishandling. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 61 per cent were due to mishandling at the food service level; 11 per cent in the home; six per cent at retail; and six per cent on farms or dairies. I remain unconvinced.

Our surveillance capabilities are weak. Certainly, they are not strong enough to support statements such as, “Research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses.” We simply do not know.

Money was allocated to bolster Health Canada’s surveillance capacity in the last federal budget, so maybe we will see improvements...soon.

For producers the point may seem academic - except that on-farm food safety programs are being contemplated and in some sectors implemented across Canada. If consumers ask producers to bolster their food safety capabilities, wouldn’t it be nice, at the end of the day, to be able to say not only are producers enhancing consumer confidence, but that the incidence of foodborne illness actually went down?

Even looking at the original press statements when the FightBac campaign was launched is instructive. Edouard Asnong, president of the Canadian Pork Council, was quoted as saying, “Techniques to minimize harmful bacteria on food must be employed at all stages, from the farm to the home.”

John Stolp of the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency was quoted as saying, “Steps to prevent harmful bacteria from infecting food must be taken at all stages, from the farm to the fork.”  Such statements endorse the notion that all players have a responsibility for food safety, including consumers.

CFIA President Ron Doering was quoted as saying, “The kitchen is the front line in the battle against foodborne illness, and that’s where we want to reach consumers.”  Good data or not, food safety comes to this: The kitchen is the last line in the battle against foodborne illness. The front line is the farm.

Doug Powell is an assistant professor in plant agriculture, University of Guelph. His new book,“Reclaiming Dinner,” will be published this summer