Must we learn to live with food scares?

The recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning should serve as a wake-up call to governments, the public and the country’s food safety watchdog, Manitoba’s chief health officer said last week.

According to Jim Popplow, the outbreak that made more than 600 people sick across Canada has widespread ramifications because of the way food today is mass produced.

“Instead of someone getting a food-borne illness in a church hall or at a restaurant and infecting maybe a dozen people or 50 tops if it’s in the potato salad at a catered wedding, you’ve got 650 right across Canada,” said Popplow.

“My thought is that I might not be able to say this is so unusual any more.”

There have been 654 cases of salmonella confirmed across Canada from March 1 to April 16, prompting the recall of a number of Schnieder’s Lunchmate snacks and Parmalat cheese products. No deaths were reported, but some people were hospitalized.

Popplow said the case raises questions about whether food inspection needs to be more stringent, or at least brought in line with today’s trend toward mass food preparation.

“Foods are now being manufactured in higher quantities by a fewer number of bigger firms and being shipped right across Canada.”

Where one mistake used to make 20 people sick, it can now lead to the hospitalization of hundreds, Popplow added.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it’s a common question with no simple answer.

“Things can fall through the cracks,” said Jean Kamanzi, a doctor with the agency. “There are accidents which can happen because no system is 100 percent.”

Kamanzi said food safety is the responsibility of the company producing the product. The agency’s role is to provide guidelines, policies and standards.

He admits outbreaks could become more “spectacular” when something goes wrong, but he doesn’t share Popplow’s prediction that outbreaks will occur more often. “These big companies have the resources to hire and train their own personnel in food safety because if something goes wrong it is their name on the line,” he said.

“In an outbreak like this one, their name is tarnished.”

Popplow said the risk is greater today, with more ingredients going into snack foods and each of those ingredients being mass produced in a different location.

The end result is that the person who actually puts the product together and ships it isn’t responsible for making the individual ingredients and ensuring they are safe, Popplow said.

“Each point of manufacturing of each individual ingredient has the potential for contamination and it all flows to some central food factory and zingo, it all gets mixed up and shipped and produces this very unusual cross-Canada food-borne illness with 654 cases.”

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