Stomachs in China have been turning after a recent food scandal at the processing plant of a major supplier of Chinese fast-food restaurants. A Chinese investigative television program exposed the conditions at a U.S.-owned meat processor that supplies major brands such as McDonald’s and KFC. The exposé showed workers at the processing plant picking up meat from the floor and mixing expired meat with fresh meat. The parent company that owns the facility at the center of this scandal described the case as “appalling.” Most troubling, “The incident highlights the difficulty in ensuring quality and safety along the supply chain in China,” stated a reporter from Reuters. This isn’t the first such scandal to rock the fast-food industry. In 2012, the issue was chicken nuggets that contained significant amounts of antibiotics. Other recent food-safety concerns have included fox meat passed off as donkey meat and expired duck meat. Chinese Middle Class Demands Safer Food and Beverage Products Although China is still a developing nation, we don’t need to be reminded that it is also a massive economy that has a global impact. Half a billion people in China are middle class; that’s nearly twice the population of the United States. Yes, there are some differences in consumption patterns, but, as Peter Hall, chief economist for Export Development Canada (EDC), states, “While Asian demand for luxury goods may be fettered by global economic decline, demand for food is much less elastic. Want proof? Over the latest economic downturn, Canada’s food exports to emerging markets has grown from a mere 14% of agricultural exports in 2002 to over 30% today.” That means that, like any other place in the world, if someone has lost confidence in the quality of fast food due to an incident that put you and your family’s health at risk, you probably have an inclination to pick up some food from the grocery store that you know is safe and resort to cooking at home for a while. But what if you are watching a Chinese food scandal unfold from the other side of the world? Should North Americans be concerned that similar practices might take place here? Are Consumers in North America Right to Worry about Food Scares Similar to the Recent Ones in China? Let’s face it, food scandals can and do happen everywhere in the world. However, food systems in advanced nations like the U.S. and Canada greatly limit such abuses and allow for almost immediate containment of tainted food. Gordon Hayburn, director of food safety at Trophy Foods Inc., offered me his own personal opinion on food safety, mentioning the apparent lack of trust among the general public, which, like everything else, is usually exacerbated through social media sharing. “It is unfortunate,” he says. “Humans are the only species I have ever seen that will at times willfully contaminate their own food supply. But if you consider the fact that in North America there are nearly 300 million people, then in theory close to 1 billion meals are consumed on a daily basis. So if you take that into account, there are really not that many incidents where food is contaminated. Furthermore, while I cannot speak on behalf of developing countries, I really do believe that the vast majority of food safety employees are doing their best to uphold food safety standards.” It’s a Two-Way Street: Governments Need to Enforce Food Safety, and Consumers Need to Better Educate Themselves Citing a number of food safety and security cases, Gordon explains that, while first-world countries are faced with the challenge of better enforcing food safety standards, consumers also need to become more educated and practice using their common sense. For example, Gordon draws attention to several recent cases where bakeries and food companies in Canada and the U.S. have made false claims stating their products are either “organic” or “gluten-free.” Trophy Foods Inc. recently went through a rigorous process to become certified gluten-free, but without consumers educating themselves on what to look for on packaging, it actually disincentivizes companies from making an investment in a legitimate certification process. On the other side of the coin, there is also a need for more inspectors, and that’s not just in the U.S. and Canada; it’s a problem that is facing most first-world countries. There are well-written laws, but not enough food safety inspectors to adequately enforce them. Just like triage in a hospital, inspectors will have to prioritize which cases receive immediate attention. A Burgeoning Demand for Skilled Labor in Food Science and Technology Another problem facing the food safety and security industry is that there are not enough young people being drawn to a profession in food sciences. Gordon explains, “I and my partner are actually not from Canada. My partner received a job offer first and I followed. Within one day, I found a job.” In Canada, organizations such as the Food Processing Human Resources Council (FPHRC) are running programs like “Youth into Food Processing” to help gain interest from young people who are considering a career in the industry, along with offering a government wage subsidy program to help small- to mid-sized businesses with the expense of hiring a recent graduate into a food sciences position. Still, many industry experts say there isn’t enough being done to persuade young students to consider a career in food science.

  • Hello Flame,
    I am not certain whether Gordon will be able to answer as he is participating in a conference. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I believe cutting out the food processors (by making everything from “scratch”) would only be half the solution as you would still have to worry about the quality of the ingredients. I am not clear on why healthcare workers would have an incentive to withhold the cause of illness from patients, if that is what you are suggesting. But perhaps unless it is severe a patient may not be advised to go through the necessary testing in order to confirm the exact contaminant -that would make sense to me.