12/07/2015 12:19 EST | Updated 12/07/2016 05:12 EST

Foodborne Illness Is Still A Serious Issue In Canada And Abroad

KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
Young man with severe stomachache holding his stomach

"It must have been something I ate."

It's a common phrase. At one time or another, many Canadians have said this when they experienced intestinal troubles. We're not sure exactly what caused the gurgles, nausea and diarrhea, but the end result is never pleasant.

Foodborne illness is a part of our human existence, though for the most part it causes little more than a short-term problem. But sometimes, the effects of eating contaminated food can be dire, leading to hospitalization and even death. For the most part, these outcomes are thought to be limited to developing areas known as low- and middle-income countries, although they do rarely occur in countries like Canada.

Over the last two decades, attempts were made to understand how foodborne illness affects the global population. Back in 1999, a report suggested the situation could be far worse than believed in countries like the United States. In 2003, a global document concluded foodborne illness is far worse than we may have thought. In that same year, a report in Canada provided a look at only a few pathogens but revealed the situation, while not dire, could be getting worse.

Now we may have a much better understanding of the impact of foodborne illness both worldwide and here in Canada. Last week, the World Health Organization released a report on the true impact of foodborne illness worldwide. Coinciding with the WHO's report, the Public Health Agency of Canada unveiled their own latest findings on the state of foodborne issues here. In both documents, the results clearly show that food is a definite route to illness and requires even more attention than we may have believed.

The WHO report was compiled by over 70 experts from all regions of the planet. The goal was to provide an in-depth look at the widespread nature of illness. They looked at both pathogens and toxins, as well as as allergens and heavy metals like lead. They also attempted to determine if there were any long-term effects with foodborne illness beyond diarrhea. When the results of the decade-long study were compiled, the data was shocking.

In total, about 8.5 per cent of the global population suffers from foodborne illness each year. That's 600 million cases. As expected, the majority -- 550 million -- resulted in diarrhea. Of those who fell ill, 420,000 people died. Although this represents less than 0.1 per cent of the total, the rate of fatalities was similar to another illness many of us know quite well, influenza.

While these numbers were unsettling, there was more bad news to come. Up to a third of all cases occurred in children under the age of five. This alone is troublesome but the researchers found this wasn't the only bad news. In many cases, due to the lack of a proper immune system and in some cases, malnutrition, the effects of illness could last much longer than the regular symptoms. The team even found links to another issue of great importance at the moment, developmental disorders.

As for Canada, the situation is far better than the rest of the world. If the global burden was equally shared among the close to 200 countries involved in the study, we would expect to have about three million cases. We actually have about half that, with only 1.6 million illnesses each year. The rate of hospitalization is also lower, with about 11,600 cases each year. In terms of deaths, Canada has an excellent healthcare system and, as such, the average number of people who lose their life is only 238. That's still troublesome, but reveals how our current food safety and health care systems can help to keep the numbers low.

The data tell a story, but for the average Canadian, statistics only mean so much. After all, many won't have any trouble with the minor inconvenience of the runs and bouts of nausea regardless of who might be infected elsewhere. That may be true, but in light of the changing Canadian diet and a changing climate there may be more reason to pay attention.

The best way to show this comes from the source of several recent outbreaks in the United States and Canada. At one time, we may have expected an outbreak to be caused by undercooked meat or contaminated dairy. Yet, in the most recent examples, the sources, if they can be found, are fruits and vegetables harvested in the Americas.

As for climate change, one particular Canadian outbreak highlights the link. It involved Canadian shellfish and a bacterium called Vibrio parahaemolyticus. While this may not appear to be worrisome in terms of our climactic concerns, consider this: the bacterium isn't supposed to be in Canada. The bacterium prefers warm water at least 15 degrees Celsius. Canadian waters have been until recently too cold to support this microbe. Unfortunately, due to climate change, the water has warmed and the bacterium is causing troubles here.

With the holiday season approaching, the best way to stay safe is to adhere to basic food preparation and hygiene skills. They can be best summed up by the four Cs.

  • Cook all raw meats and fish to 71 degrees Celsius.
  • Clean all fruits and vegetables well.
  • Cold store any perishable items.
  • Avoid Cross-contamination by keeping raw meats away from vegetables and fruits.

Although these steps may not be totally effective, they will go a long way to enjoying your meal and the good tidings that come afterwards.


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