From the Editor: July 2011
By Kristy Nudds
On April 13, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published an early release of an editorial entitled “Food in Canada: Eat at your own risk.” In the editorial, available on the CMAJ website, the authors state: “Canada’s public and private sectors are not doing enough to prevent food-borne illnesses.” Among Canada’s failings are inadequate active surveillance systems, a lack of incentives to keep food safe from farm to fork and an inability to trace foods along that pathway.
As a result, more than 11 million episodes of food-related gastroenteritis occur in Canada every year, a “crude” estimate given that fewer than one in 200 cases are reported. This puts a huge cost burden on our health system: given that our population is aging and the elderly are at the greatest risk of serious health complications from food-borne illness, pressure from health advocates on our food system to be more transparent and traceable is sure to remain at the forefront.
The editorial also points to Canada’s poor standing with respect to traceability in the “World Ranking: 2010 food safety performance” report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This report rated Canada’s food industries and government agencies 15th out of the 16 countries featured in the report on traceability.
But it’s not all bad news. Canada ranked number 1 when it came to food recalls and governance. So, once a contaminated food is discovered, we are good at limiting continued risk to consumers, but less vigilant about tracing its exact path throughout the food chain. With respect to produce, we have been fortunate not to have had an outbreak of the same magnitude as those recently experienced in Germany and the United States, to test just how bad – or not so bad – our existing traceability system is.
The federal government has recognized that traceability is a key component of ensuring a safe food supply, mandating a national traceability system to be in place by 2011, although it seems doubtful that this will be achieved. The Weatherhill Inquiry focused on improving government processes. As the CMAJ editorial states, we have more inspectors, but we still lack uniform national standards or process benchmarks.
In the Ontrace report “An Appetite for Traceability,” the result of a conference held by the not-for-profit, non-government Ontario corporation whose mandate is to champion traceability, participants overwhelmingly felt that full agri-food traceability needs to be a shared initiative between industry and government, and that industry should operate any national traceability system. The government’s role should be to oversee enforcement of the system.
And this is where one of the biggest hurdles to implementing a national system lies – in co-ordination between all sectors. Also, who is responsible for funding – government, industry, or both? The Ontrace report also pointed out that the agricultural industry needed to leverage the opportunities (such as enhanced consumer confidence, export opportunities and competitiveness) in addition to mitigating risk and controlling animal disease outbreaks, which have been the primary drivers of traceability initiatives so far.
Despite our shortcomings in traceability, Canada is still seen as a food safety leader. However, discussions among agricultural sectors and the government must ramp up and become a priority if Canada is to maintain and deserve this reputation. Let’s not let an outbreak of food-borne illness or the human health industry force us into a traceability system that hinders instead of helps progress.