All five of Canada's federal political parties have promised to beef up food safety if elected in May, but their pledges aren't enough to please a national medical policy group working to stoke the debate.
In an editorial that warns Canadians that they "Eat at your own risk," the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Wednesday slammed the country's food-safety system for what it called "major failings" related to the tracking of food-borne illnesses.
Citing a recent University of Saskatchewan study that gave Canada a mediocre rating on its food-safety performance compared with 16 other developed nations, the editorial cited "inadequate surveillance systems" and lack of a national farm-to-fork traceability system as key problems.
"There is a reason why it's an issue during the election for us," said Dr. Paul Hebert, the journal's editor-in-chief. "Food safety and security and how we regulate our foods are important health issues. When we looked at them, we found serious, ongoing issues that have yet to be addressed in Canada."
The journal joins a growing chorus of voices across the country calling for a more robust food-safety system that focuses more on preventing outbreaks than reacting to them. Traceability – the ability to redraw the pathway that food travels from farm to fork – is increasingly seen as crucial to managing outbreaks and narrowing the economic fallout that occurs on the industry side. But implementing the technology is expensive, and industries that have chosen to pursue traceability plans have largely shouldered the cost alone.
Before the federal government was defeated last month, the Conservative Party pledged to spend an extra $100-million over five years to improve food inspection in Canada. Last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched a new transparency initiative that opens access to its enforcement of food-safety laws and names convicted offenders.
But some argue the food-safety system needs much more of an overhaul.
"I hate to say that food safety in Canada is an accident, but the more I look at the system, the more I think that it's likely to be the case more often than not," said Rick Holley, a professor of food microbiology and food safety at the University of Manitoba, who, until January, sat on the CFIA's academic advisory board.
He said Canada's patchwork system of tracking outbreaks of food-borne illness is insufficient and full of holes.
"We're strapped in terms of our ability to be able to know what it is that causes us to become ill," he said.
While he applauded the government for implementing most of the recommendations made in the Weatherill Report, the result of an independent investigation into the causes of a deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008, he noted that the report's focus was narrow.
"Those recommendations were directed toward solving the problems associated with listeria. They were not directed towards solving the problems overall in the food-safety system," he said, adding: "The priorities with respect to food-borne illnesses seem to occur only after there is somebody who has died. That's not right."
One man disagrees. Ron Doering, an Ottawa lawyer and a former CFIA director, will give a speech on food safety at McGill University on Friday during the launch of the school's new Chair in Food Safety, the first of its kind in Canada. Although he agrees the system could use some improvement, Mr. Doering said it is not in a ramshackle state.
"I'm not aware of any system anywhere in the world that's better than ours on public health reporting for food-borne illness," he said. "It doesn't mean it's perfect. There's no zero risk. But I'm not aware of any study that demonstrates in any persuasive way that any country has a better food inspection system than Canada."
Food for thought
The importance of tracking contaminated food products was illustrated last week by the recall of walnuts linked to several cases of E. coli in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick. Fourteen people were reported to have become ill during the outbreak and one person in Quebec died.
Canada's rates of the pathogen are also in the top three of the OECD countries included in a University of Saskatchewan report on food safety, which lists E. coli rates per 100,000 people.
Countries with the highest rates in the study in 2006:
The countries with the lowest rates:
Other nations include:
United States (1.3)
United Kingdom (2.13)