According to a recent Conference Board of Canada report, if you live in a family of five, the odds are that one of you will come down with a case of food-borne illness this year. Over the next decade, if the risk were spread evenly, everyone in the country would get it ... twice.
How is it possible that so many Canadians fall victim to a preventable condition? According to the CDC, the situation is not much better in the U.S., with 1 in 6 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 often cause themselves to be become ill by failing to protect themselves with good hygienic practices and by throwing out foods that have expired.
This is true when considering the total number of illnesses but breaks down when considering fatalities. Consumers often sicken themselves but don't generally kill themselves. The same can't be said for producers and processors -- 22 people died in 2010 after eating tainted cold cuts in Canada, 53 died in 2011 after eating organic sprouts in Germany and 30 from cantaloupes in the U.S. -- to point out just a few. So what's wrong with the system?
One problem is that food companies run on thin margins and pay low wages. Many smaller companies simply can't afford to hire food safety professions and the ones that do hire them, do so reluctantly.
The food safety control processes used by most in the industry are archaic, consisting of manual paper binders and disconnected documents. Many operators have no food safety training and don't even know what hazards they face, much less how to control them.
When a food safety professional is hired, their life 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 product killed 9 after the owners were allegedly presented with lab reports clearly showing the product was contaminated but decided to ship anyway.
Corporate apathy impedes food safety professionals from doing their jobs effectively. Their actions 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 so 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. Recent changes to federal and provincial legislation are supposed to improve food safety in Canada, 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.
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. Today, they are the only ones insisting that their suppliers create and implement comprehensive food safety programs and submit to third-party audits, including unannounced audits. As a result, these chains 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. It might be attractive to buy local foods at the farmer's market but it is safer to buy on the grocery aisle of a big-box store.
As consumers, it's time we look at the massive number of illnesses we suffer every year and demand action from food companies -- if you want our business, you'd better stop making us sick.
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