According to the Government of Canada, one in eight Canadians will come down with a case of foodborne illness this year. How is it possible that so many Canadians fall victim to a preventable condition? According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, the situation is worse in the United States, with one in six Americans suffering the same fate every year. Obviously, something is badly broken in our food supply chain.
The conventional wisdom is that the risk increases from farm to fork, with farmers posing the least risk, followed by processors, then restaurants, and finally the consumers, who may fail to implement good hygienic practices like tossing expired foods.
This perception holds when considering the total number of illnesses, but it breaks down quickly when causes of serious illness and death are examined. Consumers may often sicken themselves, but these instances rarely result in fatalities. The same can’t be said for producers and processors – 22 people died in 2008 after eating tainted cold cuts in Canada, 50 people in 16 countries died in 2011 after eating organic sprouts from a German farm, and 33 from contaminated cantaloupes in the U.S. that same year ‐ to point out just a few. These numbers add up. So what’s wrong with the system?
For one, the food safety control processes used by most in the industry are archaic, consisting of manual paper binders and disconnected documents even when compliant with the latest regulations. Many operators have no food safety training and don’t even know what hazards they face, much less how to control them.
DEPRIORITIZING FOOD SAFETY
Another problem is that food companies run on thin margins and pay low wages. Many smaller companies simply can’t afford to hire food safety professionals and the ones that do hire them, do so reluctantly.
When a food safety professional is hired, their work day is often filled with frustration and disappointment. Owners tend to be overly optimistic when estimating how likely it is that their products will be the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness. Such was the case at the Peanut Corporation of America, whose products killed 9 after the owners were allegedly presented with lab reports clearly showing the product was contaminated but decided to ship anyway to protect from losses.
Corporate apathy impedes food safety professionals from doing their jobs effectively. Their actions appear to interfere with production since they are constantly insisting that things be done differently. Their requests for resources are routinely denied. Their contributions to protecting the public are generally underappreciated. For example, almost every food manufacturer should have a metal detector since fragments of metal often break off machines and fall into the food. Yet, it is easy to ignore the risks and delay the expense, and many processors continue to run without a metal detector despite repeated requests from their food safety staff. The same lack of resources prevents advances in control processes. Without the benefit of technology to manage the complexities of manufacturing, food safety plans are generally out of date and don’t reflect the real practices taking place on the production floor.
A muted panic generally ensues when inspectors call to make an appointment for a site visit. Surprisingly, companies usually have weeks or even months of notice before an inspection. This gives them time to get their facility cleaned up and their records in order before the inspector arrives. After the inspection, things go back to normal until the next inspection. Regulatory agencies tasked with inspections are underfunded and understaffed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been focused primarily on meat, fish, and dairy and has paid little attention to other food commodities in the past.
LACK OF ENFORCEMENT
Recent changes to federal and provincial legislation are supposed to improve food safety in Canada (with similar changes coming into effect in the U.S. through FSMA, including random inspections), but regulatory agencies lack the resources to implement and enforce these changes. Provincial authorities are swamped. Regional health authorities often operate with inspectors who lack in-depth training.
MOVING TOWARDS CHANGE
But the news isn’t all bad. A life rope is being thrown to us by the mega corporations we generally demonize such as Walmart, whose executives are heavily promoting the establishment of a food safety culture throughout food organizations and the whole supply chain. Mars even opened the $15 million dollar Mars Global Centre for Food Safety in China in September 2015. Today, these corporations are the only ones making serious waves by insisting that their suppliers create and implement comprehensive food safety programs and submit to 3rd party audits, including unannounced audits, in recognition that a poor food safety record doesn’t only result in dangers to public health, but a serious hit to the revenue and brand reputation of whole industries.
Governments are beginning to take note of this trend, with the U.K. Food Standards Agency targeting big retailers in their current push to reduce incidence of campylobacter, which is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the U.K. These changes are the main drivers today in getting industry producers and processors to educate themselves about and implement the food safety programs that will keep us all safe.
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An earlier version of this article was published in June 2014.