10/02/2012 07:24 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

Beef Recall and the Grim Reality of our Food System


Establishment 38 & E. coli O157:H7

The increasingly Orwellian nature of our Food System

"All products currently at this plant are under CFIA detention and control."

~from the Statement on E. coli O157:H7 Investigation by the CFIA, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Establishment 38 is not a lunar outpost operated by Weyland-Yutani. It is a slaughterhouse and meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta, operated by XL Foods Inc. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) has suspended the operating license of Establishment 38 because of the detected presence of E. coli O157:H7. Another food recall, this one crossing almost all provincial borders, is today's sobering headline reality. While the scientists, researchers and investigators of the CFIA have E. coli O157:H7 under the microscope, Canadians have also placed Canada's food safety system on a slide and we're collectively scrutinizing how we got ourselves into such a pickle.

Our massively complex global food system involves billions of supply chain transactions daily.

The relationship with the consumer has evolved and citizens must diligently participate in the food equation in order to prevent food borne illnesses. But, do we have the skills to be active participants in a food system we interact with on multiple occasions daily?

Certainly independent and arms length inspection of food production and processing should be the standard, but it isn't. Consumers would consider a scenario where movie producers critique their own films to be unacceptable. The same logic applies to our food. We require unbiased and scientific analysis of our food production, processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and preparation facilities and institutions, yet this does not exist, even remotely, in any manner that could be safely termed failsafe.

We cannot rely solely on slaughterhouses/processors like XL Beef and Cargill (the two largest processors in Canada) to ensure food safety. They are, for the most part, self regulated. We cannot rely on the CFIA, as they only monitor processors-reported-data and conduct random testing. We cannot rely on the retailers, as they are not presently equipped for such stringent analysis of our food. In fact, there are no guarantees associated with our food and its safety. Such is the landscape of food production and consumption in the 21st century for the majority of Canadians.

Wait... No guarantees around the safety of food consumed by Canadians? This is the grim reality of our highly industrialized food system which presently feeds 99 out of 100 Canadians.

Where's the safety?

The very real scenario of a massive beef recall involving millions of pounds of processed and packaged beef is upon us, again. It illustrates the precarious nature of an industrial food system and its unstable relationship with food safety. Three Billion pounds of beef are processed in Canada every year. It ends up on our plates in a variety of products. The trust we have in our food to be safe from pathogens rests with the food industry. This is a huge responsibility borne by numerous agencies, producers, processors & retailers. Whenever & wherever food is handled, it is vulnerable to pathogens and contamination. Many Canadians are unfamiliar with even basic food handling protocols. The industrial food system has become so ubiquitous and efficient, we only think about food when we are hungry. A chasm exists in the minds of Canadians as to where our food comes from and how seemingly, it magically appears on our plates.

Intrinsic in a system that operates at such a scale is failure. There appears to be significant gaps in precision control of the present food safety system. Without a coordinated national and provincial strategy on food safety, the system will continue to only manage the risk. The objective should be the eradication of pathogen risk to the consumer, but this is an epic target for a complex food system that feeds 35 Million Canadians daily. The simple existence of so many variables based on the variety in the food chain dictate that we will continue to see an increase in food borne illness as our consumption levels increase annually. As consumers, in the absence of a meticulously coordinated national food safety strategy, we must do everything in our power to eliminate errors in food handling where we have the final say... in our own kitchens. Apart from that hyper controlled environment, we must default to trust in a system that continues to expose its weaknesses and subsequent inherent dangers to the populace. As the end user, we have a responsibility to demand that all the players in the food system communicate, strategise and implement a vastly superior food safety regimen to the one that is presently failing Canadians.