Writing in the organization’s journal, the public health policy group told Canadians that the nation’s food safety system has “major failings” and that they “eat at your own risk”.
CMAJ’s editor-in-chief Dr. Paul Hébert and co-authors wrote: "Canada's public and private sectors are not doing enough to prevent food-borne illnesses. Among the major failings are inadequate active surveillance systems, an inability to trace foods from "farm to fork" and a lack of incentives to keep food safe along the "farm to fork" pathway."
They cited research from the University of Saskatchewan, which ranked Canada’s food safety system as mediocre last year when compared to 16 other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The same research found that Canada also ranked second to last in terms of food traceability in 2010 (only ahead of the United States). Since then, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has launched a transparency initiative, in which it names companies that violate food safety regulations, and publishes information on its website about the compliance and enforcement activities that it undertakes to protect the safety of the Canadian food, animal and plant supply.
Hébert and co-authors wrote: “Food will never be sterile and risk-free. However, without changes, many people will be harmed and some will die because of preventable contamination.”
They claim that Canada needs better food safety oversight, better government policies and standards, and incentives for industry to encourage improved food safety.
“Private and public oversight of food safety should be reformed to ensure sufficiently uniform practices across the country so that we can make comparisons among different regions, suppliers and types of food,” they wrote.
“Incentives need to be in place to encourage improvement in food safety at each step. Information on outbreaks of foodborne illnesses — including their possible causes and actions taken to stop them — should be quickly and publicly reported to provide timely feedback to food producers and inspectors, and also to educate the public.”
The article’s authors are not alone in their anxiety about Canadian food safety. A recent Ipsos Reid poll found that concern among Canadians is increasing, with 77 percent saying they are either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the safety of the Canadian food supply, up from 66 percent in 2007.
Canada’s food safety system was put under the spotlight in 2008 following a listeriosis outbreak in which at least 20 people died after eating contaminated meats. A resulting inquiry made 57 recommendations to improve government processes.
However, Hébert et al wrote: “We now have more inspectors, but we still depend on company insiders overseeing inspections with no uniform national standards or process benchmarks.
“…No system can afford to trace and inspect 100% of foods. Thus, industry must assume primary responsibility for safe food production, processing and distribution. But, government policies and incentives are needed to promote safety where industry has no reason to do so.”
The full editorial can be accessed online here.