Canada has world-class food safety system

As a United Nations organization put a spotlight on global food safety issues, a Saskatchewan-based researcher had high praise for Canada’s system of checks and balances.

The World Health Organization used its annual World Health Day last week to focus on issues of food-borne illnesses and safety risks in global supply chains that ship meat and livestock, fruits and vegetables and bulk commodities around the world.

The UN agency released findings from an upcoming study that found 582 million cases food-borne illnesses in 2010, which resulted in 351,000 deaths. Salmonella, E. coli and norovirus were the most common of the 22 food-borne illnesses reported.

“Canada has one of the top, if not the top, food safety systems in the world. Other countries look to our regulatory system as a model of food safety,” said Stuart Smyth, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s bioresource policy, business and economics department.

“Many developing countries just don’t have the fiscal resources to have the level of quality and control that we do in Canada to ensure that the food products that are available for purchase in our grocery stores are as safe as they possibly can be.”

Smyth’s assessment mirrors that of a 2014 Conference Board of Canada report, which ranked Canada’s food safety performance first among 17 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The report, which surveyed the country’s ability to assess, control and mitigate risks, cited a low number of reported food-borne illnesses and recalls as a reason for the top billing.

It also recommended the country improve monitoring with more frequent dietary intake surveys.

Smyth said a regular food safety issue in Canada is related to organic foods.

“Thousands of cases a year of food illness are triggered from organic products,” he said. “It’s largely due to the process of them using manure slurry as fertilizer and coming down to improper household food preparations in terms of making sure that they’re properly washing organic food.”

The WHO study found illnesses were most common in Africa and Southeast Asia. The organization is calling for strengthened food safety regulations and improved communication during emergencies.

“A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency,” WHO director general Margaret Chan said in a news release.

“Investigation of an outbreak of food-borne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.”

A Canadian initiative, dubbed the Food Safety Information Network, seeks to improve communication and response time from federal and provincial laboratories and regulators. The effort is funded by $30.7 million in federal funds.

“Absolutely no system is immune to issues that do challenge it. Certainly we’ve seen a couple of those in the last few months and in the last few years,” said Smyth, referring to a recent BSE case in Alberta and bird flu cases in Canada and the United States.

“I think grounding it in a science based framework is the cornerstone for all food safety systems.”

In those cases, farms have been quarantined and movement restricted. Canada has faced export restrictions because of the incidents but also implemented its own on imports.

Smyth’s research focuses on the plant sector, biotechnology and regulations. There are fewer food safety concerns in bulk commodities, but consumers are worried about genetically modified food.

“Ethics is a very nebulous issue,” said Smyth.

“You can’t boil it down to saying two out of a million people say this is safe or it’s not safe. Where within a science-based system you can definitely say that at two parts per million or five parts per billion consuming this product at that level is safe for consumers?”

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