Mediocrity wins Canadians lose with foodborne illness

A bunch of Canadian medical types say Canada sucks at food safety; the first president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency disagrees.

They’re both wrong.

"Canada’s public and private sectors are not doing enough to prevent foodborne illnesses," writes Dr. Paul Hébert, Editor-in-Chief with coauthors. "Among the major failings are inadequate active surveillance systems, an inability to trace foods from "farm to fork" and a lack of incentives to keep food safe along the "farm to fork" pathway."

Maybe. But citing self-published reports that haven’t been peer-reviewed doesn’t lend much credibility to the argument. And speaking on behalf of all Canadians, with statements like the following further disminish credibility.

“Canadians are usually good at regulation. Canada’ s pragmatic yet stringent regulation of financial institutions ensured that the economic downturn has been less severe here than in other countries. In health, our blood system’s surveillance programs and ability to trace products from ‘vein to vein’ is another fine model.”

The way Canada handled the emergence of HIV in the blood supply in the early 1980s was an international embarrassment. Good regulation does not equate to good enforcement. I don’t know what banking has to do with food safety other than it’s another myth Canadians like to comfort themselves with at night, content their world doesn’t contain the harsh nasties of other places.

Oops, that’s a generalization. I should stay away from that; so should editors of journals.

Ron Doering, an Ottawa lawyer and a former CFIA president, will give a speech on food safety at McGill University on Friday during the launch of the school’s new Chair in Food Safety, the first of its kind in Canada. Although he agrees the system could use some improvement, Mr. Doering said it is not in a ramshackle state.

“I’m not aware of any system anywhere in the world that’s better than ours on public health reporting for foodborne illness,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There’s no zero risk. But I’m not aware of any study that demonstrates in any persuasive way that any country has a better food inspection system than Canada.”

Doering is right there is no published study that demonstrates one food safety system is better than another; such comprehensive studies are difficult, expensive and don’t mean much. But the listeria outbreak of 2008 in which 23 died was another international embarrassment, the Ontario salmonella-in-sprouts outbreak that sickened over 600 was another, and what is going on with E. coli O157:H7 in walnuts is another shameful addition.

There are lots of great epidemiologists and public health professionals in the Canadian system – but they are stifled by a system that rewards mediocrity.

The only way consumers will be able to exercise choice is to market food safety at retail, get beyond the platitudes, and show some data.

US school lunch program needs more food safety accountability

Today’s USA Today has a feature story today about meat served in the U.S. school lunch program and asks why certain batches of meat were excluded from a Salmonella-related recall and outbreak last year. What stands out is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially refused to match suppliers with positive test results as part of an analysis of 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.

USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA Today that divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America’s school children."

The newspaper appealed the USDA’s decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.

Although one company, Beef Packers Inc., appeared to stand out for the wrong reasons – in 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that’s typical for the nation’s best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found — the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.

That sounds eerily familiar to what happened in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales that killed five-year-old Mason Jones (left) and sickened another 160 kids eating their school lunches, where buyers were quick to look the other way to save a pound. A public inquiry into the outbreak concluded the procurement process was, “seriously flawed in relation to food safety.”

One way to push food safety through the system is to demand continuous improvement from suppliers in terms of lowering the number of pathogen positive results. Any consumer-oriented company is going to insist on evidence of such steps or they will take their business elsewhere. Those overseeing school lunches for U.S. kids should demand the same.

What also stands out is that despite the focus on food safety of the feature and an additional heart-wrenching story about a child sickened 11 years ago through the school lunch program, a third story about a company trying to provide low-cost, healthier, natural (whatever that means) school lunches makes no mention of – food safety. The story cites a sample lunch that may now contain fresh lettuce and tomatoes in a wrap, rather than the canned or cooked variety of fruits and veggies. Fresh is great, but introduces an array of microbial food safety and supplier management issues that isn’t even mentioned. Sorta ironical.