Canadian Food Recalls By The Numbers

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued 124 recalls for 445 products in 2015. This was down from 180 recalls from the previous year, but what lessons can we learn from the data? See our analysis below the infographic.

Food-recalls-Canada-2015

HIGHER STAKES FOR OUTBREAKS & RECALLS

To start us off, let’s look at how 2015 was the year that, perhaps more than any other, demonstrated the high cost of recalls and foodborne illness for the food industry. In the United States, this effect was pronounced: the deadly Blue Bell listeria outbreak spurred a recall of all of the company’s products across the country — the first recall in the company’s 108 year history ‐ and it almost caused them to shut their doors for good. The U.S. Department of Justice announced a criminal investigation into the outbreak in December, an ominous sign for Blue Bell executives following the precedent-setting sentencing of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives only a few months earlier. Notably, PCA owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in distribution of salmonella-tainted products that killed nine people, as well as for obstructing the investigation that followed.

The gorilla of food safety failures of 2015 was undoubtedly the restaurant chain Chipotle, after at least three separate outbreaks last fall sickened hundreds of their customers around the United States. We watched their stock drop USD $6 billion in under six months. This case exemplifies the high cost of recalls in terms of public health, consumer confidence, overall revenue losses, and reflects poorly on the industry at large. A study from the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimated that half of all recalls cost American food producers over $10M, while almost one quarter cost over $30M.

FEWER RECALLS IN CANADA IN 2015

While our neighbour in the south was rocked by these scandals, how did Canada do? Overall, it’s relatively good news: there were fewer recalls in 2015 than during the previous year. Canada’s recall numbers have been quite steady over the past five years, so this variation is within range of predictable results.

When examining the types of products that caused recalls, snacks and confectionery products topped the list with 14% of all the recalls in 2015, followed by seafood (12%), produce (11%), nuts and seeds (10%), and meat (10%).

We don’t normally associate snacks and confectionery products with food safety dangers, but they topped the list mainly because of undeclared allergens, making up 32% of recalls triggered by undeclared allergens. Those with deadly food allergies should also watch out for seeds and nuts (14% of all undeclared allergen recalls), seafood (14%), and beverages (10%). Undeclared allergens were the cause of 40% of total recalls in 2015.

However, most dangerous (and deadly) recalls are due microbiological contamination, notably listeria and E. coli. Of these products, fresh produce is behind the most recalls (19%), followed by meat (15%), poultry (13%), and seafood (12%).

FOOD COMPANIES RELY ON CFIA INSPECTORS

While the numbers from last year are cause for optimism, fewer recalls doesn’t necessarily mean that Canada’s food producers are doing a better job of making food safer. The numbers, as stated by University of Guelph researcher Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, remain within range and do not necessarily indicate any particular trend.

However, the data sheds light on whether or not the industry is capable of policing itself. The information provided by the CFIA on food recalls in Canada in 2015 reveals that over half of all recalls issued were the result of CFIA inspections, testing, or investigations, which is down to 56% from 67% in 2014. Recalls triggered by the company itself made up only 15% of all recalls.

As the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which received royal assent in 2012 but has yet to come into force, slowly ramps up, food producers have a long way to go to achieve compliance with the necessary vigilance. The government keeps pushing back deadlines for new regulations citing that the industry is not yet ready to meet them. This mirrors the situation in the United States, where repeatedly extending deadlines led to a lawsuit from consumer advocacy groups that ended with the enforcement of court-mandated deadlines for measures in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). However, the situation in Canada is not looking to follow the same path (nor allocate the appropriate budget to do so) and the lack of comprehensive food safety plans in a huge proportion of food businesses is still prevalent in Canada…with little change yet in sight.

FOOD SAFETY IS INCREASINGLY GLOBAL

Almost 18% of all recalls were triggered by recalls in another country, pointing to the risks inherent in an increasingly global food supply. This number, pushed up from 9% in 2014, was largely the result of several widespread outbreaks that affected many products over a prolonged period of time. The salmonella outbreak linked to cucumbers in the United States made its way to Canada, and so did Granny Smith apples contaminated with listeria. Another large-scale recall was sparked by garlic powder from an American supplier that was contaminated with salmonella and used in dozens of products nationwide.

Recalls in the United States and Canada are closely linked, with over $50 billion in agriculture and agri-food trade alone between the two countries every year. But while the American strategy includes making an example of high-profile cases such as Blue Bell, the PCA, and Chipotle through tough criminal investigations, Canadian food safety measures includes a model more akin to escalating traffic tickets that penalize food producers more harshly should they continue to fail to comply with food safety standards. The larger-scale recalls of 2015, such as the recall of 242,000 boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese due to metal fragments, or the listeria fears around Amy’s Kitchen pre-packaged frozen meals, did not spark criminal investigations in Canada.

Recognition of the increasingly evident fact that food safety is a global concern is mounting. One of the key changes coming into effect as a result of FSMA is the Foreign Supplier Verification Program, which extends the regulatory burdens of FSMA to both foreign suppliers and domestic importers in the United States. The Safe Foods for Canadians Act may also include additional measures to regulate food imported into Canada. Global institutions like the Global Food Safety Initiative and the World Health Organization are also tackling food safety as an international issue, requiring cooperation and participation from all countries. These initiatives are supported by major food producers as well, including the $15 million Food Safety Centre opened by Mars, Inc. in China in September.

WHAT WILL DRIVE FOOD SAFETY COMPLIANCE?

In the meantime, Canadian food producers must wait and see how quickly new regulations from federal and provincial authorities come into effect and also consider international regulations that may either open market opportunities abroad or nip them in the bud.

As the global community, combining efforts of government, consumers, retailers, and food suppliers, recognizes the cost of neglecting food safety, change is on its way.

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