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"Food is worse than crack"

12.dec.05, Brae Surgeoner, Food Safety Network

As a food safety geek, I’m biased. I’m not as interested in over-consumption issues as I am with issues concerning food safety and consumer health protection, which, incidentally, also threaten to kill us.

12.dec.05, Brae Surgeoner, Food Safety Network
"Food is Worse than Crack" is the title of a weblog dedicated to news and issues related to eating and weight. The title worked: it caught my attention. Yet such a sweeping insult to all sectors of the food system is virtually unheard of, even in this the age of anti-insert-the-ism, no one is anti-food.
Upon further inspection, I realized that the weblog creator likened food to crack because of its addictive nature. Farfetched? As you’re fighting the masses this Christmas (or should that be holiday) shopping season take a look around. During the past 25 years, obesity rates among children and adults have soared. And while Canadians may not be as fat as our friends south of the border, over consumption of food threatens to kill us too.
As a food safety geek, I’m biased. I’m not as interested in over-consumption issues as I am with issues concerning food safety and consumer health protection, which, incidentally, also threaten to kill us.
In the past month, more than 500 salmonella illnesses throughout Ontario have been linked to mung bean sprouts. At the same time, in Alberta and British Columbia, over 20 people have been stricken with E. coli O157:H7, including three-year-old Hillary Nelson who went on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the most severe symptom of infection and the most common cause of kidney failure in children. The effects of HUS are likely to be lifelong.
Health officials privately watched as the monthly number of reported salmonella cases climbed steadily from 34 beginning in June, through to 72 in October, with absolutely no public acknowledgement that there was a problem.
The same thing happened out West, where it took health officials more than a month from the time the first case was reported in Calgary until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency sent out a warning to the public not to consume various ground beef products sold at Safeway stores in Alberta and British Columbia.
So did public health officials drag their feet? Probably not, in terms of the investigation. Is there a reluctance to warn the public, for fear of reprisals or unnecessary fear? Probably yes.
When health officials identify increased illness in the U.S. and Australia, more often than not, they alert the public, even in cases where the cause of the outbreak remains unknown.
For example, in 2004, salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. When health officials in Pennsylvania first noted an increase in cases, Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Health Department, told the Associated Press that the infections were caused by the same type of salmonella bacteria, “but it is too early to connect the outbreak to a specific food supplier or other outlet.”
Similarly, Canadian grocery stores should share the responsibility for notifying the public about food safety issues, either at point-of-sale or checkout. Consumer s have already figured this out: earlier this week Surrey B.C. resident, Gordon Scott, wondered in a letter-to-the-editor why there were no signs in the affected Safeway stores alerting consumers that certain meat products had been recalled for E. coli contamination.
But why even wait for a recall?
And why aren't safe handling labels mandatory on all packages of raw meat and poultry sold in Canada? Why are sprout containers sold without warning labels that inform people at high risk for serious foodborne illness that they should avoid eating the product raw? Health Canada says as much in its sprouts factsheets, yet there is this nagging Canadian reticence coupled with paternalism that consumers may somehow be scared off.
Safe handling labels for all raw meat and poultry sold at retail have been mandatory in the U.S. since 1994. And while the government has yet to make a move to place warning labels on spouts (similar to those already required for unpasteurized juices -- in the U.S.) the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have issued warnings about raw sprouts since 1998, saying they can be contaminated with salmonella or E. coli bacteria.
According to the parents of Hillary Nelson, “We want other parents to know that eating undercooked meat isn't the only way to contract E. coli. Most people don't realize that you can pick up E. coli through cross-contamination by handling a meat package with blood on it, or on a surface someone who has handled a leaky meat package has then touched afterwards, like the handle of a shopping cart.”
Mandatory safe handling labels would serve the goal of informing the public about such risks.
While Health Canada has proposed mandatory labeling for all raw meat and poultry and reported in January 2004 that it was “assessing the merit of employing various policy instrument alternatives,” to date nothing has been implemented.
So, is food worse than crack? Not really.
But the imagery works, and in the sense that the destructive effects of sometimes lethal exposures to pathogens like salmonella and E. coli can lead to death, food can certainly be as bad as crack.
Brae Surgeoner is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph. The Food Safety Network's national toll-free line for
obtaining food safety information is1-866-50-FSNET (1-866-503-7638) and
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