Food sector faces new food safety regulations

Safe Food for Canadians Act outlines inspection requirements, mandatory licensing and product labelling

OTTAWA — New food safety regulations should be published later this year with an emphasis on continuous improvement throughout the chain.

Regulations for the 2012 Safe Food for Canadians Act will be published in the Canada Gazette, and it will be open for public comment, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott told the Canadian Meat Council’s annual meeting held in Ottawa Sept. 26-27.

Regulations set out inspection requirements for all commodities and food from plants and animals. Imported and domestic products will be covered, she said.

“The meat industry is clearly not a stranger to regulation, and yet under the Safe Food for Canadians regulations, there are some businesses in this country who will be regulated for the first time,” she said.

There will be mandatory licensing of all food importers and processors shipping across provincial boundaries or exporting products.

There will also be a continued presence of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors in meat plants.

“Inspectors will continue to be present on a daily basis in all federally registered meat and processing establishments,” she said.

The U.S. is also updating its food safety requirements, and the Food and Drug Administration recently recognized Canada as having equivalent standards.

New Zealand is the only other country to receive similar recognition, said David Acheson of the Acheson Group, which works with private companies on food safety.

Significant outbreaks of sickness prompted the government to act to update its standards, he said at the meat council meeting.

Food recalls are going up in the U.S. with about 80 percent of them vegetable related because of the presence of salmonella, E. coli and other contaminants. About 50 percent of meat and poultry recalls were because of a failure to label the presence of an allergen.

“We are getting new risks associated with food all the time. Who would have thought 10 years ago when ConAgra had to recall every jar of peanut butter because of salmonella,” he said.

“As food safety experts, we didn’t think peanut butter was a risk.”

Technology and an understanding of these problems has changed, but no one can predict how this information may affect future food safety regulations.

Detection of pathogens, residues and heavy metals has improved to the point where technology can find contaminants as low as one part per trillion.

Food companies are using whole genome sequencing more often to identify new forms of E. coli and other pathogens. Information can go into a national database for future comparison.

Meeting consumer expectations for all kinds of food that is available all the time is a big challenge for food companies. There is no tolerance for unsafe food.

“There is a greater focus on corporate responsibility,” he said. “Food companies are told, ‘you have got to understand where the risks are in your system and we will tell you when you don’t get it right.’ ”

Most companies have done a poor job of educating consumers who want more local and unprocessed food. People often do not know what the ingredients are on a label, and if the names of these are unidentifiable in their everyday life, they want them gone.

“Without stopping to think when we take preservatives out of things, stuff goes bad, it goes mouldy and we increase our risk,” he said.

“That is the reality of consumers today. It is not based on science. It is based on fear.”

Food companies need to understand a plethora of potential risks and require a crisis management strategy that is not just a trace-back exercise in the event of a recall.

Trouble can be averted by understanding the power of social media, recognizing a risk before it turns into a problem and having procedures in place to handle situations from recalls to full blown crises.

There is also a new trend in which criminal charges lay the blame on company management.

“It would not shock me if Canada goes down exactly the same road,” Acheson said.

“It is an incredibly effective regulatory deterrent. There is nothing like getting prosecuted to make people wake up and say, ‘these guys are serious.’ ”

For example, Jensen Farms of Colorado was charged after an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes resulted in the deaths of 33 people. The company adopted a washing system that was meant for potatoes and elected not to use chlorine spray to kill bacteria. The defendants pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and were sentenced to probation, six months of home detention and a fine. No one went to jail, but the company went bankrupt.

Another case in Iowa started in 2010 when Quality Egg LLC pleaded guilty to introducing adulterated eggs into the market. The judgment said Austin DeCoster and his son, Peter, were aware of unsanitary conditions but failed to im-prove them, leading to people becoming sick from salmonella.

The company paid a US$6.8 million fine after pleading guilty to charges of shipping eggs with false processing and expiration dates and bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.

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