According to the government of Canada, one in eight Canadians will come down with a case of foodborne illness this year. How is it possible that so many Canadians fall victim to a preventable condition? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the situation is worse in the United States, with one in six Americans suffering the same fate every year. Obviously something is badly broken in our food supply chain.

Consumers may often sicken themselves, but these instances rarely result in fatalities. The same can’t be said for producers and processors — 22 people died in 2008 after eating tainted cold cuts in Canada, 50 people in 16 countries died in 2011 after eating organic sprouts from a German farm, and 33 from contaminated cantaloupes in the U.S. that same year  — to point out just a few. So what’s wrong with the system?

Archaic Processes

Chocolate production machineMany operators have no food safety training and don’t even know what hazards they face, much less how to control them. I’ve seen a chocolate factory with numerous violations. They had problems with their machinery and rerouted the processor flow using cardboard and duct tape, both of which should not be allowed in a production facility. They were stirring the vat of chocolate with an old hockey stick that was also wrapped with duct tape. Wooden utensils or duct tape are not supposed to have direct contact with food. And there was a guy sitting there eating his sandwich over the open production line of chocolate running by, which is a huge risk for cross-contamination from things like sesame seeds that could fall off the sandwich and into the product.

Deprioritizing Food Safety

If you talk to food processors, you find out that the time they are most concerned about food safety is just before the audit. Inspectors typically want to see the production process for high-risk products, and audits are called in advance so that they are able to schedule a day when there is production for these products. The problem is that it gives companies a month or six weeks in advance to clean up and make sure everything is spic and span for the inspector. Everything goes back to normal for the year after that.

We have three major retailers in the lower mainland of British Columbia that control the various supermarkets. One has a comprehensive program with inspection teams. Another is starting to make an effort, and they have confidence that about 8,000 of their 10,000 suppliers have a good program in place. This leaves 2,000 suppliers that have no idea if the products they’re selling are safe. The third has no oversight at all.

Corporate Apathy

Corporate apathy impedes food safety professionals from doing their jobs effectively. Their actions appear to interfere with production since they are constantly insisting that things be done differently. Their requests for resources are routinely denied. For example, almost every food manufacturer should have a metal detector since fragments of metal often break off machines and fall into the food.

A particular chocolate company produced chocolate from beans. It was even more important to have a metal detector because there was associated machinery involved in grinding up the beans. The food safety coordinator had been asking for a metal detector but couldn’t get budget from management, so instead they bought magnets because they figured magnets would be cheaper. The problem is that the processing equipment was made of bronze, a non-ferric metal which isn’t affected by a magnet, so it was doing absolutely nothing. All these bronze fragments were ending up in the food, and they received customer complaints about it.

Lack of Enforcement

Recent changes to federal and provincial legislation are supposed to improve food safety in Canada (with similar changes coming into effect in the U.S. through FSMA, including random inspections), 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. The municipal government of Vancouver recently banned the sale of edibles in the city; however, it continues the sale of capsules. I talk to dispensary growers, and they don’t know food safety is an issue that applies to them.

The news isn’t all bad. A life rope is being thrown to us by the mega-corporations we generally demonize, such as Walmart, whose executives are heavily promoting the establishment of a food safety culture throughout food organizations and the whole supply chain. Governments are beginning to take note of this trend, with the U.K. Food Standards Agency targeting big retailers in their current push to reduce incidence of Campylobacter, which is the most common cause of foodborne illness in the U.K. These changes are the start in getting professionals in food safety to educate themselves in order to keep the public safe.

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