Over the past couple of days I’ve been hanging out traveling roadshow of North Carolina Cooperative Extension meetings where the focus is on strengthening communities through local foods. We’re talking about stuff like research, production, processing, farm-to-school programs and community gardens and where extension folks are fitting in and leading.
One of the questions that has popped up at each of the sessions is whether local foods are safer than non-local foods and how that should be handled by extension. I answered that trying to compare safety (and for me that relates to microbiological risks) is kind of irrelevant and not supported by data- there are lots of food businesses from farm-to-fork that recognize, manage and control risks well — and plenty that don’t — regardless of size and location. A good food safety culture isn’t linked to where the firm is geographically located – it’s more likely influenced by whether they worry about making their customers sick.
This same local/centralized discussion is going on in Canada right now as the toque-wearing, Molson-swigging media takes notice of a recall of New Food Classics (now in receivership) beef products. The company was linked to an E. coli O157 illness in February and as CFIA digs into documented cleaning and sanitation practices and product distribution the recall has grown to include everything the company produced going back to July 2011. Instead of exploring New Food Classics food safety culture, the discussion is following a familiar big vs. little discussion.
According to Toronto’s NewsTalk1010:
Food safety experts are debating the pros and cons of "centralized" beef processing versus local production after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued and expanded a widespread recall.
Some experts say that while centralized processing is more cost effective than local production, it carries more risks. But other specialists disagree.
"People mess up at all stages of production and people can do a really good job at all stages of production," says Ben Chapman, a Canadian food safety expert currently working in the U.S. Chapman says it’s not about centralized versus local, but about the individual companies and their culture towards food safety.
There are pros to local beef production according to food safety expert at the University of Toronto, William Navarre, "but in terms of food safety, I think the industrial model is actually the best one," Navarre says. Navarre says that it is easier to regulate, control and inspect larger companies.Another advantage in the centralized processing system,
According to University of Guelph food science professor Keith Warriner, is the amount of money large processors are able to spend on safety. "The reality is that large processors have enough revenue, economies of scale, in order to implement food safety systems," Warriner says.