Dogma over data is dumb: food safety myths strong in Canada

Canada has the best health care system in the world.

And really clean water.

And really safe food.

And a lot of delusional people who apparently think repetition rather than data makes something true.

This week was particularly strong for some food safety nosestretchers in the wake of comments make by supermarket mogul Galen Weston Jr. that food at farmer’s markets were going to kill someone someday.

First up, Sylvain Charlebois, acting dean and professor at the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics, who wrote in a widely circulated op-ed that,

“The 2003 mad cow crisis in Canada was really the first major food safety-related event our country had experienced.”

In 1998, 805 Canadians, primarily children between 6- and 10-years-old, were sickened with Salmonella Enteriditis linked to Schneiders Lunchmates. That really was a major food safety event. So was E. coli O157:H7 in the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario in 2000, which killed 7 and sickened 2,500 in a town of 5,000.

Maybe not enough dead people?

In 1985, 19 of 55 affected people at a London, Ontario nursing home (that’s in Canada) died after eating sandwiches apparently infected with E. coli O157. A subsequent inquest into the outbreak yielded numerous stories about the “obscure but deadly bacterium, E. coli O157.” On Oct. 12, 1985, in response to the on-going inquest, the Ontario government announced a training program for food-handlers in health-care institutions, “stressing cleaning and sanitizing procedures and hygienic practices in food preparation.”

The 648 sickened from salmonella in sprouts in Ontario in 2005 would also count as a major outbreak.

Next, Roger George, a retired farmer, a former provincial and national farm leader and the author of the 2002 Agricultural Odyssey Report, writes in the North Bay Nipissing that,

“The Canadian food supply at all levels is among the safest and the most regulated in the world.”

Or as Rick Holley of the University of Manitoba says, “The food safety system in Canada is on the upper end of being mediocre."??

Back to AD Charlebois.

“We also need to celebrate our successes in food safety. The mere fact that the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak was discovered early is an achievement in itself.”

Government and industry types said much of the same during the outbreak. It’s nonsense. As revealed in numerous journalistic and government inquiries, the feds were slow and silent in releasing information about the pending listeria death-storm. Nursing homes were ordered to stop serving the cold-cuts five days before Canadians were told the same thing.

Rob Cribb of the Toronto star wrote, “at virtually every stage of the outbreak, it seems things could have – should have – gone differently in a food safety system repeatedly hailed by government officials as ‘one of the safest in the world."?’?

Roger George:

“What has to be avoided in the food industry is scenarios like the over reaction after Walkerton which seems to have no boundaries around public cost and regulation. Human negligence was the root cause of that tragedy, and human error is a daily risk in every processing plant, restaurant, supermarket and farm. Oh yes, the greatest risk of all, in your kitchen and mine.”

When seven people die and 2,500 are sickened by a preventable bug, I’m not sure when something would be classified as an over-reaction. But repeating dogma like the home kitchen is the greatest food safety risk is just more repetition in the absence of data – and ignorance of the causes and complexities of food- or waterborne outbreaks.

Charlebois:

“And the Maple Leaf affair allowed us to educate ourselves on what was then considered a relatively unknown pathogen.”

Beginning August 2, 1998, over 80 Americans fell ill, 15 were killed, and at least six women miscarried due to listerosis linked to Listeria monocytogenes bacteria with a unique genetic code. On Dec. 19, 1998, the outbreak strain was found in an open package of hot dogs partially consumed by a victim. The manufacturer of the hot dogs, Sara Lee subsidiary Bil Mar Foods, Inc., quickly issued a recall of what would become 35 million pounds of hot dogs and other packaged meats produced at the company’s only plant in Michigan. By Christmas, testing of unopened packages of hot dogs from Bil Mar detected the same genetically unique L. monocytegenes bacteria, and production at the plant was halted.

The dangers of listeria have been known for decades. Charlebois shares the same delusion repeatedly projected by Michael McCain that listeria was an unknown risk in refrigerated ready-to-eat foods like deli meats.

The real danger is Canadian acquiescence to dogma in the absence of data.