Why are there so many tainted-food recalls in Canada?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Hardly a week seems to go by these days without a news story about another batch of tainted food.

This week it was a brand of cherry tomatoes and also store-made party trays that include cherry tomatoes that may carry the Salmonella bacteria, and ham sausages with potentially deadly Listeria, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The watchdog agency's recall list so far for November is actually pretty short at seven items, compared with October when ran to two dozen. Some of those were warnings about undeclared hazard allergens.

November's list included carrot chips tinged with Salmonella, a brand of pumpkin butter whose ingredients include an unnamed "dangerous bacteria" and Salmonella-laced peanut butter.

In October, the list ranged from Listeria-tainted sheep cheese and popcorn to romaine lettuce tinged with Salmonella, and the tail end of the E. coli-tainted beef recalls that began in September with the XL Foods fiasco.

The agency said there have been no reported illnesses connected to the suspect cherry tomatoes, the Vancouver Sun reported.

But the regularity of these recalls makes me wonder if our food supply is getting unsafer or, in fact, it's safer because of better monitoring?

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The CFIA asserts Canada has one of the best food-safety systems in the world. Do the agency's statistics on recalls demonstrate that or do they show producers, perhaps for cost reasons, are being less careful?

CFIA stats show the number of recalls has risen over the last six years from 246 in fiscal 2005-06 to 301 in fiscal 2011-12, with dips in a couple of the intervening years.

The number of recalls connected with microbiological hazards, which includes bacteria, viruses and parasites, has gone up to 82 from 64 over the same period.

The vast majority don't make news past a routine public-service announcement. But a number, like September's massive XL Foods tainted-beef recall create serious disruptions in the food-distribution system, not to mention the health consequences.

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Health Canada estimates between 11 million and 13 million Canadians suffer food-borne illnesses each year. Most people recover after an uncomfortable day or two, but some die and between two and three per cent are left with chronic health problems, according to the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.

A study done earlier this year for the Conference Board of Canada showed Canadians suffer higher rates of food-borne illness than Americans, the Globe and Mail reported.

The report doesn't finger tainted meats and veggies so much as it does unsanitary restaurants, cafeterias and other food-service providers, which it suggests are the source of at least half of all cases, the Globe noted.

"The point is Canada does have a good food safety system, but there is room for improvement along the farm-to-fork continuum, especially in food services and at the household level," Daniel Munro, principle research associate of the study, told the Globe.

The Conference Board report made a number of recommendations to improve the food-safety system, including toughening inspections for restaurants, the Globe said.

But it also urges governments to boost consumer awareness about safe food handling at home to minimize the risk of contamination when preparing and cooking meals.