Local = safe? Show me the data

The Montreal Gazette is the latest media outlet to plunge into the if-food-from-China-makes-us-sick-we-should-buy-local issue.

Paul Mayers, executive director of the animal products directorate at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, was quoted as saying, "Continued globalization means our responsibilities continue to grow. Regulatory systems in different countries are at different stages of evolution. We realize not all countries have systems that are as developed as ours."

I’m not sure how developed the Canadian regulatory system is. The scientific expertise is there, but when it comes to sharing that information with consumers, the system seems far from developed.

Even the story notes that "the Canadian Food Inspection Agency doesn’t release numbers on how many shipments it inspects or how many inspectors it employs. Nor does it track food-safety violations by country."

The story cites me, Doug Powell, an associate professor and director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, as saying the food supply is as safe as it’s ever been, adding, "It doesn’t matter whether we get our food from around the corner or around the world." Powell said it’s up to consumers to ask questions, but said increased government inspection is not the answer. "You can’t test your way to a safe food supply," said Powell, who believes ensuring food safety is the responsibility of the private sector. "Making people sick is bad for business."

Actually, the rest of the quote was, "you want to verify that producers and processors are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing" but the reporter didn’t seem to like that.

There is a growing assumption visible in media coverage and marketing, that local equates with safe. I was at the Manhattan (Kansas, that is) market with Amy last Saturday morning. Producers, large or small, should be able to describe their efforts to manage microbiological risks. Back in Guelph, Ontario, I used to ask the guy who sold fresh apple cider what he did to control risk (this, in the aftermath of the 1996 Odwalla juice-E. coli O157:H7 outbreak) and he could describe the small microbiological lab he had set up on his farm and the testing and sampling procedures he used. If consumers want unpasteurized cider, that’s the kind of question and answer they might want to be interested in.

Regardless of the source, have some sort of verification that it is microbiologically safe.