TORONTO — When incidents of food-borne illness erupt in Canada, the search for a culprit usually turns to the farm or food processing sectors.
However, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada argues that the attention paid to those two parts of the food chain is usually exaggerated.
Of almost seven million cases of food-borne illness estimated in Canada each year, far more than 70 percent occur because of errors at the food services level or improper food handling in the home, says report author Daniel Munro, principal research associate at the conference board.
“There is room for improvement in all stages of the supply chain and on-farm and processor would be part of that, but the risks at those stages are relatively well managed,” he said during a conference board food conference.
“The highest risk is at the fork end of the chain, so what consumers do or don’t do in their homes is critical. Restaurants and cafeterias also are a focus.”
In the report, Improving Food Safety In Canada, Munro also suggested that Canada increase its inspection of imported food and food products.
“We’re concerned about the fact that we’re getting more ingredients from other countries, especially countries where food safety systems are suspect or simply unknown,” he said.
“The lack of certainty and the lack of knowledge is cause for concern. We’d like to see more efforts to take a look, in fact, at what is coming in.”
He conceded that “you can’t inspect everything, but one of the virtues of the inspection system is that it may induce others to comply with the rules that are out there.”
In his report, Munro concluded that on-farm food safety programs are effective.
“The vast majority of food produced on Canadian farms is safe,” he wrote. “Contamination leading to illness is rare.”
However, the view is not as rosy further up the chain.
“One subsector in the food industry has a food safety track record that is poorer than the rest: firms in the food service subsector, which includes restaurants, catering businesses and schools, hospitals and long-term care dining facilities.”
He said an independent study estimated that as much as 70 percent of the problem occurs in food service establishments.
And then there is the way Canadian cooks deal with food inside the home.
“A large share of food-borne illness is a consequence of consumers’ poor storage, handling, preparation and/or cooking practices,” he wrote.
In the interview, Munro said better consumer education is key, although the message about safe food handling is already out there.
“Consumers know what they are supposed to do. They just don’t do it,” he said.
“They know they are not supposed to leave the chicken out, they know they are not supposed to use the same knife for vegetables and meat, but they don’t always recognize the risk and they take shortcuts and terrible things happen.”
So why does so much media and public health attention focus on farm and processor sectors, even though they are not likely to be the main problem?
“Some of the most high-profile cases tend to locate their source at either the manufacturing level or the farm,” he said.
“The second point is that if something goes wrong at that level, it will likely affect more people than if something goes wrong in your home. You affect your family and it’s not going to make news.”
Food safety tips
Even with food safety inspection and monitoring at processing facilities, food-borne illnesses still occur when proper handling and cooking practices aren’t followed at home. To prevent illnesses such as E.coli or salmonella:
- Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling food, after handling pets, using the bathroom, sneezing or coughing or after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, poultry or fish.
- Use a fresh dish cloth each day to wipe kitchen surfaces and launder dirty cloths in hot water.
- Have at least two cutting boards in your kitchen: one for vegetables or fruit and the other for solely meats. Bacteria can lurk in the deep cuts made in cutting boards, no matter if the board is made of wood, plastic or glass, so don’t chop up a salad on a board used to cut up chicken pieces.
- Disinfect your cutting boards after washing them in hot, soapy water with a solution of 1 tbsp. (15 mL) bleach per gallon (4 L) of water.
- Put dirty kitchen sponges or scrub brushes in the top rack of the dishwasher to disinfect them.
- Use a meat thermometer in the deepest part of the meat to test for doneness, but be sure to wash the probe in hot, soapy water before reinserting it to test the meat again.
- Don’t leave sprouts, seeds or beans on the cupboard for any length of time. Warm, humid conditions can cause bacteria to grow. Be sure to wash produce thoroughly before eating. To remove waxes and residues, use a clean spray bottle and a solution of 1 tbsp. (15 mL) lemon juice, 1 tbsp. (15 mL) white vinegar and 1 c. (250 mL) water and let the produce sit five to 10 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention