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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  • Neil

    We need this article put in major cities where the majoity of Canadian consumers are. This an excellent article.

    • Dayton

      Excellent based on what? One man’s theory?

  • Dayton

    Since every organic product on the shelf can be tracked to the farm of origin it should be easy for the CFIA to bring those responsible for contaminated products to justice. Organic standards prohibits the use of directly applied uncomposted manure for this very reason. Who ever does this is doing it against regulations. Now in a conventional system many can get away with contaminated products. There is no way of tracking anything. Hopefully with all the ecoli outbreaks that system will soon change as well. Couldn’t help but notice Dr Smyth couldn’t slam Organics with an eye into the camera or a firm tone in his voice. Sounded a little bit like a set up via Biotech.

    • Cairenn Day

      Sounds like someone wants to ignore a major problem. In the US, organic foods are less than 5% of the market and yet are almost 1/3rd of the recalls due to bacterial/viral contamination.

      My mom grew up on a typical farm before WW II and she would NEVER eat a potato or carrot without scrubbing them and then peeling them. Produce like cabbages and lettuce lost all their outside leaves also to prevent problems.

      I think we can all agree that using those techniques are wasteful. I will skip the organic, until I see more evidence that they are taking more care against contamination.

      • Dayton

        Quite possible there are recalls based on the well documented tracking system of Organic produce. We know that’s the real reason labeling is not mandated in a conventional system. It comes down to what they don’t know won’t hurt them attitude. Meanwhile as with Triffod contamination surprisingly there is no one to blame.

        • Cairenn Day

          How can GMO food hurt anyone? … ‘Well documented tracking’ Really?, then why did it take so long to track down the cantaloupe contamination a while back?

          There is NO reason to label GMO crops …

          • Dayton

            Is there a health benefit to top dressing our food with chemicals pre harvest? GM crops are designed to encourage the use of chemicals namely glyphosate.

      • thabe331

        Can I get a link to your numbers? I’m interested in seeing how much of a scam organic farming is.

        • A whopping 46% of all organic food sold in Canada tests positive for prohibited pesticides. And it’s no wonder, more than three-quarters of it is imported from countries like China, Mexico and Argentina.

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Sorry, Carienn, but as we discussed in another forum, there’s no actual evidence to support your claims.

        I’m an organic farmer; I’ve fed my young children with the food I grow since the day they started eating solid food, and I look the people who buy and eat my produce in the eye every week. This is true, to some extent, of pretty much every farmer, organic or conventional, in the world. You don’t think we take care against contamination???

        Show some respect.

        • No one doubts your integrity as an organic farmer Rob. It’s the organic-certification system which fails to test organic crops that’s the problem here.
          Admit it, your annual inspection doesn’t include a single test to ensure you’re composting your manure safely and fully. Does it?

        • Cairenn Day

          It is great that you have not encountered any problems. The fact is that while organic food is less than 5% of the market, it accounts for over 30% of the recalls for contamination due to bacteria/viruses.

          My mom was raised in the country, before WW II. She would have NEVER considered it safe to eat potato peels or and unscrubbed and unpeeled carrot. The outside leaves of head veggies were all discarded, to prevent illness. She overcooked pork, for the same reason.

          Veggies were washed, peeled and then overcooked to prevent illness from the manure used on them. I understand that organic farmers are not allowed to use fresh manure, but they are fighting proposed regulations to extend the age of the manure used, even though the reasoning for that is to reduce the chance of contamination.

          Sorry, too many organic farmers are ‘cutting corners’ and making folks sick.

          I will not eat any fresh organic product, ( I might from someone’s garden that I knew and trusted). Commercial organic, I will go hungry first and hit the Micky Ds on the way home.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            Show me the evidence. Repeating your statement and calling it a “fact” doesn’t make it so. Your anti-farmer insults and accusations are no better than the anti-GMO statements you are objecting to in the other comments. I’m not the only one calling you out:

          • J. Randall Stewart

            Caireen, I’ve figured processes that avoid uses of modern additives/preservatives/chemicals are more inherently risky from contamination–just knowing what I know about cleaning and sterilizing dairy equipment with hot water/chemicals/detergents, etc.

            Do you have references for the 30% recall ratio for organic food?

  • richard

    The predictable glib political assertion around the “danger” of organic foods…. and as per usual no mention of the fifty thousand chemicals in use in North America, only three hundred ever tested, and a mere five restricted use (Scientific American)….. Can the author spell russian roulette?

  • Rob Wallbridge

    Mr. Smyth: Please cite the science-based evidence to back your claims about organic food safety in comparison to non-organic products.When you fail to do so (and I say “when” because every single person I’ve asked to do this for the past decade has failed), please retract your statements and issue an apology to the thousands of certified organic farmers in Canada who work side-by-side every day with every other Canadian farmer to produce healthy, safe food.

    The Western Producer should be ashamed to uncritically highlight a misinformed, fear-mongering attack on any sector of the Canadian food industry, particularly in this context.

    • Brad Buhrkuhl

      Organic agriculture is the most expensive, expansive hoax perpetrated on consumers during the past half-century. An affront to the environment because its low yields are wasteful of water and farmland, organic agriculture confers no
      advantages except for the feel-good factor for true believers. It only survives because of massive government subsidies and promotion, and “black marketing” that dishonestly disparages the competition .

      • Dayton

        … Organic farming does not mass produce Corn for ethanol or grow grain intended for the pet food and livestock industry. A simple conversion of grain to meat shows it’s not sustainable within a growing population. Meanwhile our air and streams continue to induce toxic waste. Don’t kid yourself it’s the multinationals pulling the strings but just a few are fighting back.

      • richard

        … “Expensive hoax”, “affront to the environment”, “wasteful of water”, “only survives because of massive government subsidies”…..all of these projections are a mirror image of an industrial agriculture the author is desperately trying to wash his hands of……

    • Stuart Smyth

      Mr Wallbridge: Will a report from the World Health Organization suffice? In 2011, organic cucumbers containing a lethal level of e. coli were sold in Europe, resulting in over 4,000 cases of illness and 50 deaths. Colleagues of mine at the FAO reported that by the 3rd day of the story, the powerful European organic industry had pressured the media into removing the word organic from all stories. Sadly removing the word organic contributed to thousands of additional cases of illness and death, as European consumers had no idea it was the organic food that was killing them.

      I stand by my claim, organic food is the most dangerous and unsafe food on the market today. If you want to eat food that will kill you eat organic.

      Please see the following link for reference to organic food causing over 4,000 cases of illness and 50 deaths:

      • richard

        Still arguing about lettuce are we? Lettuce can be washed….Why dont we talk about BSE, BST, PED, CJD, ractopamine, zilmax, antibiotic resistance, neonicotinoids, and a thousand degenerative human diseases connected to environmental contamination……all of which are a function of industrial agriculture. The flight from complexity here is hardly surprising given the limited reductionist worldview…..and the fear, loathing and envy of organic agriculture is simply an extension of that fear…..the fear of the inevitable shift to an agricultural paradigm not at war with nature…

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Mr Smyth: The German case was a tragedy, absolutely. The largest contributing factor to the scale of the outbreak was widespread confusion and uncertainty about the true source of the contamination. The generally accepted theory now is that it was caused by organic fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt and sprouted on a German farm. It’s unfortunate that you continue to contribute to the misinformation by referring to cucumbers as the source.

        However, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that anyone “pressured the media” into removing the word organic. In actual fact, this tragedy has become a favourite reference of those trying to claim that organic food is less safe.

        What’s more disturbing than your weak grasp on the facts of this case, is the fact that a university professor will cite an anecdote when asked for science-based evidence. We could post links to conventional and organic contamination issues back and forth all day and they still wouldn’t offer scientific evidence to support your claim.

        And in typical “extremist anti” fashion, when you can’t provide actual evidence to support your claim, you double down on the emotional rhetoric – “if you want to eat food that will kill you”… Obviously, “ethics is a very nebulous issue”. Especially for you, sir.

        • Testing Rob… where’s the organic field testing?

      • Dayton

        Now that’s a shilling report from biotech. Your blog says it all. Thanks WP for introducing the latest…

  • Harold Steves

    As a trained scientist I can safely state that this is totally unscientific bias. Five years ago we delivered our last grass fed cows to CFIA certified Pitt Meadows Meat. A few weeks after we picked up our organic beef they were shut down for e-coil contamination. E-coil in beef comes from heavy feeding of grain in feedlots. The grain increases the acidity in the cow rumen. E-coil bacteria that can survive the high acidity in a cow stomach can survive the high acidity in a human stomach. That’s why every major case of e-coli contamination causing beef recall is from conventional beef production, not organic beef production. Today, 5 years later Pitt Meadows Meat was found guilty by the courts.

    • Dayton

      Exactly, looks like someone has found another puppet.

    • Jackie Robin

      Sounded to me that Dr. Smyth was talking about vegetables, not meat. You don’t fertilize or wash meat…

      • Harold Steves

        Dr Smythe attacked all organic food. He included BSE and Avian Flu with washing vegetables as reasons to suspect organic food. Organic beef is not fed animal protein and therefore is not susceptable to BSE.

        E-coli from grass fed cattle will not cause human ilness if it gets on vegetables as the e-coli is destroyed by the acid in the human stomach. Some organic beef is fed grain but generally not in high enough concentraations to encourage the production of acid resistant e-coli.

        Conventional feedlot beef, fed 35lbs of grain a day, along with hormones and antibiotics that allow them to stomach it, will definately produce acid loving e-coli and if sprayed on vegetables they would be contaminated. However, if feedlot manures are used the vegetables cannot be considered organic.

  • Sterling Ericsson

    If you follow food safety news, you see new bacterial outbreaks from organic crops every other week. Here’s one of the most recent:

    • Rob Wallbridge

      If you follow food safety news, you see new bacterial outbreaks from ALL food every week. If you want to convince yourself that one particular food is bad, you’ll make special note of those cases. That’s called confirmation bias, not scientific evidence.

      • Sterling Ericsson

        For the comparatively smaller amount of organic food compared to all other kinds of farming, there is a disproportionate amount of bacterial outbreaks.

  • Wind Chapman

    Although I don’t doubt what Dr. Smyth states, I think Mr. Yates should cite the actual article on the WHO site. I have mucked through the WHO site several times looking for uncited information and it is exhausting.

  • Denise

    IF that happens, it’s probably due to spray drift from GMO crops. Organics farmers have try and create zones to separate their pesticide- free non-GMO crops from pesticide- laden GMO crops. Imagine the difficuty in doing that.
    The table is slanted in favor of pesticide -treated GMO crops.
    No fairness in this game.


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