The Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) has announced the implementation of a new and easy to use online resource, called EAT SAFE!, aimed at helping consumers avoid foodborne illness.
The website includes sections instructing consumers how to properly clean, handle, separate, cook and chill their foods, complete with a link to appropriate internal temperatures for various meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Moreover, it provides a chart of “higher risk foods” listing foods to avoid completely and others to consume with caution.
Although created to promote food safety for all Canadians, CPHA specifically intended that the online tool would target “higher-risk groups” including seniors, people living with HIV/AIDS, people undergoing cancer treatment and pregnant women.
According to Dr. Lynn McIntyre, CPHA Board member, “Everyone should be aware of their personal level of risk for foodborne illness and follow some simple steps to safeguard their health, whenever they buy, cook, or store food.”
However, she added, “Most bacteria, viruses and parasites that induce foodborne illness present a greater risk to seniors, pregnant women, people living with HIV, and people undergoing cancer treatment.” Those groups remain among the most susceptible to a food-related illness as their immune systems are weakened. In addition, if those vulnerable populations do contract a foodborne illness, the symptoms are often more severe and may even be fatal.
In support of EAT SAFE!, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. contributed to the funding of the website by providing an unrestricted educational grant to CPHA.
Dr. Randall Huffman, Maple Leaf Foods’ chief food safety officer, agreed with McIntyre’s statement, noting that “vulnerable populations and their caregivers have a particular need for relevant information on food safety that is easily accessible.”
“Our partnership with CPHA and the development of the EAT SAFE! Web site provided an excellent opportunity to support our education and outreach initiative and help deliver important information to higher-risk Canadians on proper food safety practices, including which foods they should avoid,” said Huffman.
The launch of the new food safety website comes nearly 2 and a half years after a devastating Listeria outbreak that claimed the lives of 22 Canadians and sickened hundreds.
The Canadian federal government eventually traced the 2008 outbreak back to Maple Leaf Foods products. As a result, Maple Leaf Foods recalled 191 of its ready-to-eat meat products and shut down its Toronto plant. Unfortunately, however, it took more than two months from the date of the first reported illness associated with Listeria for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to confirm the presence of Listeria Monocytogenes in Maple Leaf Foods products.
As a result of the delayed response, the Canadian government came under fire. Food Safety News reported on Sept. 15, 2009 that “The herky-jerky nature of Canada’s response to the Maple Leaf outbreak brought down criticism on the government and led to the independent investigation headed up by Sheila Weatherill, a public health executive.”
After investigating the crisis, Weatherill submitted a report with 57 recommendations to bolster the Canadian food safety system. The Canadian government subsequently spent $75 million (Canadian) to adopt all of her recommendations.
In the aftermath of the outbreak, Maple Leaf Foods also attempted to mend its reputation by creating an updated food safety website which, as Food Safety News previously reported on Oct. 6, 2009, “outline[d] actions the company has taken to improve food safety including improving sanitation, doubling environmental testing, increasing food testing, and strengthening recall procedures.”
The site, published a year after the 2008 outbreak, also included a “food safety at home” section designed to show the important role of consumers in preventing foodborne illness.
Many thought the emphasis on consumer responsibility was distasteful in light of the discovery by Canadian health officials that Maple Leaf Foods knew it had a Listeria problem in the plant before the outbreak occurred.
Doug Powell, Kansas State University food scientist and expert in food safety communication, expressed that telling consumers that they need to do more was not the best plan of action. “Companies like Jack in the Box recovered because they did the right thing–and didn’t blame consumers,” he added.
Yet, despite criticism, CPHA and Maple Leaf maintain that consumer awareness of proper food safety measures is crucial to disease prevention. They believe that the EAT SAFE! website, will serve as an invaluable tool in raising consumer awareness as well as helping bring about a decrease in the estimated 11 to 13 million Canadians who contract foodborne illness each year.
While discussing the new website, McIntyre stated, “The food industry and all levels of government have primary responsibility to deliver food that is safe, but consumers are an important link in that chain.”
“With more than 74.9% of Canadians online today, people are more likely to turn to a computer search engine to find information, and we’re proud to deliver rich, relevant food safety information through the EAT SAFE! website,” said McIntyre.
As part of the EAT SAFE! campaign, CPHA has contacted public health and home health care professionals to inform them of the important features on the website. The agency has also made many of its food safety and foodborne illness prevention materials available for download in English, French and 11 other languages to increase accessibility.