Just how safe is our food?

Asks the Vancouver Sun with its banner headline today. There is a general expectation among the public that someone is looking out for their interests. Concerns generally only arise when there is an e-coli or SARS-like outbreak. Not overtly mentioned in the article below (though it promises to be part one of a series) is the link between the concerns expressed in the article with a rash of deregulatory activities in recent decades – through budget-cutting by federal and provincial governments, to regulatory harmonization with the US, to the BC-Alberta TILMA.

In the name of “competitiveness” we have too often accepted the line that regulation is a burden on corporate Canada. Business may hate it, as it adds to their bottom line costs, but regulation is necessary to ensuring the public interest, and if done well, creates a floor that competitive pressures cannot cross. But we policy folk are not all that good in making this real – deregulation is a bore – so thanks to the Sun for the reminder about why public interest regulation is needed.

Just how safe is our food? Much of what we eat isn’t inspected by the federal government before reaching stores

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Up to 13 million Canadians, more than 40 per cent of the population, will suffer from foodborne illnesses this year, an epidemic that medical experts say costs up to $1.3 billion annually in lost productivity and medical expenses.

E. coli-tainted spinach from the U.S.; cantaloupes from Costa Rica contaminated with salmonella; and pet food containing a toxic chemical imported from China — recent safety scares have raised serious questions about the security of Canada’s food supply and sparked criticism that the government and food industry don’t do enough to ensure food imported from other countries is safe to eat.

It’s an epidemic some fear will only worsen as grocery stores rely increasingly on food grown on foreign soil that Canadian officials will probably never see or inspect. In 2006, Canada imported $19.2 billion worth of food from 195 countries and jurisdictions, according to Statistics Canada. While the bulk of imports — about $11.6 billion — came from the U.S., Canada also imported about $756 million in food from China, $607 million from Brazil and $599 million from Mexico. Imports from the Philippines hit $91 million, nearly $66 million from Malaysia, about $26.8 million from Iran and $24 million from Ghana. Food imports into the country increased 21.5 per cent from 1996 to 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

A major portion of the food we eat will never be inspected by the federal government before it goes into stores. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also doesn’t scrutinize products based on the country of origin, but instead looks more closely at high-risk products.

High-risk food, such as meat, faces the most rigorous checks and 100 per cent of shipments into Canada are inspected, said Paul Mayers, executive director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s animal products directorate. The agency is also currently inspecting 100 per cent of shipments of leafy greens, like lettuce, into Canada as a result of last year’s outbreaks.

But the CFIA inspects less than 10 per cent of shipments of low-risk products, which includes a majority of fresh produce that comes into Canada.

It’s a “risk-based” approach to food safety — which the CFIA and many food experts say helps the government manage resources and focus on areas that have the greatest potential risk.

But as the number of outbreaks linked to foreign food continues to mount and an increasing proportion of the Canadian diet is made up of food imported from other countries, there are serious questions about whether food growers and sellers, as well as the government, are doing enough to keep what Canadians eat safe.

… The cumulative effects of food-borne illness on the Canadian economy are significant, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“This would actually translate into fairly substantive costs into terms of health care and lost productivity from time off work,” Sockett said.

… A growing number of critics say it’s a major problem that Canada imports a significant amount of food from less-developed countries in South and Central America, Africa and Asia that may not have, or properly enforce, strict farm safety guidelines to keep food from becoming contaminated with harmful bacteria, high levels of pesticides or chemicals that are banned from use in Canada.

“In other countries, they’re going to still be using pesticides that are banned in Canada, so it increases our exposure to some things we’ve already decided are a problem,” said Dr. Kapil Khatter, director of health and environment at Environmental Defence, an advocacy group. “If there are regulations in places like Mexico, they’re often not well enforced.”

Under the current system, food suppliers and retailers are supposed to conduct quality checks and take other measures to ensure food it brings into the country is safe. Often, that means checking food shipments to make sure they have the proper documentation required for imports, said Justin Sherwood, western region vice-president of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, an industry association that represents retail grocery stores.

But the industry doesn’t normally conduct tests for pesticide levels or bacterial contamination of food. It’s a job the industry says it leaves up to the federal government.

Yet, while the CFIA conducts random checks to see if food is safe, the agency says the industry bears a significant amount of responsibility for keeping the food supply safe.

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