Public response to recalls depends on who, how, what

One person died in Canada’s most recent food recall, that involving 
E. coli O157:H7 contamination of Gort’s Gouda Cheese based in Salmon Arm, B.C.


Another 22 people in five provinces were made ill but have recovered or are in the process of doing so. 


And despite the tragic loss of a life, the matter quickly faded from the public eye.


Contrast this with the E. coli contamination of beef at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta., last year, in which 18 people were made ill and recovered, no one died and the matter remained in the news for months.


It raises the question: does the public, and by extension the media, treat big agriculture differently from small agriculture in terms of attitude? Sure it does. That’s a no brainer, you may say to yourself. But is it reasonable that this is so?


This most recent recall shows small operations are not necessarily safer than large ones. We, the public, expect that they are. We hope they are. 


And in fact, the few reported incidents of illness attributed to lax food safety in small operations — and in large ones — show our expectations are generally realized. 


Still, small food production can also mean limited resources, inconsistently applied regulations or untested ways of ensuring food safety.


Gort’s operation was inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. XL was also CFIA inspected, even though subsequent investigations suggested all was not sound in that process.


Of course the glaring difference be-tween the two cases is scope. XL was a massive operation that distributed product nationally and internationally, which had potential to be consumed by hundreds of thousands of people. 


Eighteen of them got sick.


Gort’s is a small artisanal cheese maker, with distribution aided by internet sales but limited potential to reach thousands of Canadians. 


Yet it killed somebody.


The cheese case is unlikely to affect general cheese consumption. But the XL recall reduced consumer confidence in beef in the short term and quite possibly in the long term for some. 


We will never know how much of this unease was solidified by the corporation’s lack of public response.


XL’s owners gave a cursory apology, began a voluntary recall of products and disappeared from view, leaving the CFIA to ham-handedly address the fallout. XL perpetuated the stereotype of the faceless corporation that had little regard for public safety.


In contrast, Gort’s owners provided in-person tearful apologies, a sincere-sounding mea culpa on the company website and voluntarily recalled all raw milk cheese products. The operation had a face, and that face was concerned and apologetic.


The lesson in that is obvious.


Another angle to this comparison relates to product: cheese versus meat. Cows giving milk versus cows giving their lives. White milk versus red blood.


Perhaps public reaction to meat production and recall is more visceral, and that primitive response manifests itself in more intense scrutiny.


But is death from E. coli carried in cheese or on spinach any less tragic than death from eating contaminated meat? 


Clearly it is not, but public response to meat recalls seems disproportionate to those involving leafy greens and dewy cheeses.


As technology improves, discovery of food contamination on both a small and large scale is becoming quicker and easier. It is also quicker and easier to inform the public, which can make it seem as though contamination is rife.


But food is safer than it has ever been and we can be grateful for that. We can also more closely examine the facts of each recall and more carefully consider our own responses to them.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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