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CPMA’s Dempster Defends Produce Industry’s Food Safety Record In Canada

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 28, 2007

The Ottawa Citizen ran a series devoted to food safety. Canada’s Risky Business made you think they need to quarantine the whole country:

Up to 13 million Canadians, more than 40 per cent of the population, will suffer from food-borne illnesses this year, an epidemic that medical experts say costs up to $1.3 billion annually in lost productivity and medical expenses.

E. coli-tainted spinach from the U.S.; cantaloupes from Costa Rica contaminated with salmonella; and pet food containing a toxic chemical imported from China — recent safety scares have raised serious questions about the security of Canada’s food supply…

But quickly enough, the article gets around to blaming the imports:

Federal health officials say they’re becoming more and more worried about the fact fresh fruits and vegetables shipped to Canada from other countries, including those with lower safety standards, are making up an increasingly large proportion of cases of foodborne illness.

“One of the more recent trends that we’ve observed that is of some concern to us is we are seeing an increasing number of outbreaks linked to produce,” said Paul Sockett, director of foodborne, waterborne and zoonotic infections at the Public Health Agency of Canada, which estimates up to 13 million people in this country will suffer from a foodborne illness this year. “I’m talking about plants, fruit, types of materials, even nuts. A lot of this, actually, is coming into the country rather than the stuff that’s actually produced within Canada itself.”

While imported products help keep prices down and give consumers choices, the reality is that the farther away our food originates, the more difficult it is for the government and food industry to guarantee it’s safe.

“It’s getting worse, not better, because of the fact we’re importing more and more food from places like China, where food safety is a joke,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “It’s endemic, inherent in an industrialized food production system that you have a lot of filth and disease spread.”

Foreign-grown produce has brought new types of bacteria and foodborne illness into Canada in recent years, such as a parasite found on soft fruit grown in central South America and salmonella bacteria on bean sprouts and lettuce from the United States.

The next piece in the series, The Canadian Farmer’s Lament, explains that Canada puts a lot of standards on its farmers but doesn’t require them of farmer’s from outside Canada and that food safety is best served by buying local:

Recent examples of food scares involving imported spinach tainted with E. coli, contaminated carrot juice and pet food that contained a poisonous chemical have convinced some that Canada should place a higher level of scrutiny on foreign food products.

“The Canadian government’s got their blinders on,” Mr. Terauds said. “They probably don’t have the manpower, but why should the Canadian farmers be faced with all these rules and the imported stuff not?”

Canadian farmers say the best way consumers can ensure they’re eating safe food is to purchase it directly from the grower, rather than buying products from an industrial farm where the sheer size and scope of operations makes it difficult to catch problems with the food supply.

“The safest food is the stuff that’s local because the stuff that’s local is picked by myself or someone else or my staff. I know exactly who they are. I know if they’re sick that morning. I know if they’re going to wash their hands after they’ve gone to the washroom and all those nice other things,” Mr. Terauds said. “If you’ve got 250 people working for you like a lot of these big places do, how do you know who’s doing what? Are you going to follow everyone into the can? You can’t do it.”

The final day of the series, they left produce alone and turned to meat in a piece entitled, Ranchers Willing To Pay The Price To Keep Meat Safe, Customers Happy:

Unlike fresh produce, the majority of which isn’t inspected before it is allowed to be sold in Canada, the federal government inspects 100 per cent of meat products, including poultry, beef and pork, before they’re allowed in.

“They certainly are subject to our highest level of scrutiny,” said Paul Mayers, executive director of the animal products directorate at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “We provide the highest level of scrutiny because meats have that potential to cause illness in humans if not properly produced and prepared and handled. They have the potential to bring foreign animal diseases into the country.”

The pressure to keep the meat on grocery store shelves safe has likely never been higher. Yet, despite the added work, cost and frustration these changes have brought, Canadian ranchers say the only way to survive is to meet or exceed the regulations that now govern their business.

It was a sloppy series in which people were allowed to say things without challenge — a dangerous situation in Canada’s capitol where the series might give some government officials some incorrect notions.

Fortunately, Dan Dempster, President, Canadian Marketing Association lives in Ottawa as well, and he wrote a letter to the editor:

IT’S A TEAM EFFORT TO KEEP OUR FOOD SAFE

Re: Series: From farm to table, Aug. 7-9.

Canadians love their produce, consuming more than 6.4 million tonnes annually. That’s something like 50 billion servings of tasty salads, apples and berries, to name a few.

Yet produce has had some bad press lately, including information that’s wrong. A number of produce-related issues late last year captured the headlines. And serious as they were, they don’t define the reality of Canada’s market for produce.

Confusing research also had some consumers wondering about the produce they’re eating, with no good reason. Take, for instance, the scary statistic from the Public Health Agency of Canada that spoke of an estimated 11 million to 13 million cases of food-borne illness a year in Canada. A number like that suggests a veritable epidemic.

But a closer look reveals the number was a countrywide extrapolation from the results of a telephone survey conducted with 3,500 randomly selected residents of the Hamilton, Ontario, area. In other words, it’s an estimate.

Canadians can have more confidence in a study to be published later this year by the same public health agency, which revealed that less than three per cent of the 1,127 outbreaks reported over eight years were definitively linked to fresh fruits and vegetables. Produce, it turns out, is actually the safest fresh food group.

Of course, one foodborne related illness is too many. But the statistics regarding the health benefits of consuming five to 10 daily servings of fruits and vegetables are overwhelming.

With good reason Canada’s Food Guide places produce at the top of the rainbow in terms of recommended consumption. Science has proved that consuming vegetables and fruit can help reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, keep your bones strong and make it easier to maintain a healthy weight.

Supporting all this is an industry that devotes considerable resources and tireless efforts to ensuring a safe food supply.

Canadians enjoy an extensive variety of healthful, delicious fresh produce year-round, and whether domestic or imported, conventionally grown or organic, this industry works diligently to provide safe, nutritious product to consumers.

Food safety is a team effort involving both industry and consumers.

Industry members share responsibility along the supply chain, while consumers complete the effort through proper washing, handling and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables at home. Recommendations on safe food handling practices can be found at canfightbac.org. For more information on healthy eating, visit 5to10aday.com.

Dan Dempster
Ottawa
President, Canadian Produce Marketing Association

Three intriguing things about this letter:

  1. There is reference to a study soon to be published that will show that produce is the safest food group.
  2. A reminder that any risks in consuming produce must be balanced against the benefits of eating produce.
  3. The reminder that consumers have obligations to wash, handle and store properly to achieve food safety.

Thanks to Danny Dempster and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association for manning the barricades.

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