Listeriosis: The Slippery Slope Underneath Canada’s Food Safety System

It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Quoting from a Canadian Press report, “Three more deaths in Ontario are being attributed to the cross-Canada outbreak of a dangerous bacterial infection that’s been linked to tainted meat. The additional deaths bring to six the total number in Ontario in which officials have concluded listeriosis was either the principal cause or a contributing factor.”(Canadian Press Aug 25, 2008) For a hungry Canadian public, which takes food for granted, this latest food safety scare should serve as an example that no food safety system is perfect.

Patricia Weaver-Blonde is a colleague of mine who along with your loyal scribe has a weekly radio commentary in Chatham, Ontario Canada. Every week Patricia chimes in with the history and heritage of local agriculture. I often hear her comment on the olden days when people mostly lived on farms and ate what they produced. At the time they had their own food safety system. However, as production increased and the public turned more and more urban, any tie to that local food production mostly disappeared. The move to a society where people trusted what was in the can of peas came to fruition.

So here we find ourselves with listeriosis. That’s a lot different than mad cow disease in Canadian cattle. When that first hit back in 2003, the Americans shut their border to Canadian cattle and it looked like Canadian beef country would never recover. Nonetheless Canadians responded that summer by eating four times the hamburger they had eaten the summer before. This time around with something called listeriosis, our public health minister is recommending everybody throw what you have in the fridge away. You can almost hear the lunchmeat and ready to eat lunch snacks collectively landing in the compost pit.

Of course the difference this time is that people died and our food supply was compromised. In the case of Mad Cow, none of it reached the food chain. Maple Leaf foods and its plant in Toronto has been fingered as the source of listeriosis. Recovering from this debacle will not be easy. Michael McCain, the principal owner of Maple Leaf Foods and the bane of many Canadian pork producers has already released a video on You Tube saying they were sorry. For those smaller locally owned meat packers in competition with Maple Leaf, seeing the big guy in trouble will surely represent opportunity.

If you still don’t get it when it comes to food safety let me tell you a story. As many of you know from time to time I travel to Bangladesh. While there I hang out with my faithful friend and co-author Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque. In Bangladesh for the most part, food is either fresh or it will kill you. That might be a bit of a stretch but for the most part it is true. Enamul doesn’t do any shopping. He has somebody buy his food for him. He does that because he doesn’t have time to shop, but he also does it because those who buy for him know who’s selling safe food. At the end of the day, his system works because everybody down the line wants to keep getting paid.

On one of my trips there in 2000, I visited Teknaf, a small town at the southern tip of Bangladesh on the Myanmar border. While waiting for Enamul outside on the street, I watched a vendor making what looked to be these very tasty deep fried, road stand treats. They looked delectable. The vendor seeing this big white guy, motioned me over, but I didn’t go. Finally seeing Enamul, I asked him if he thought I should get one of those delectable treats. Enamul told me absolutely not. They were unsafe in his estimation. I moved on.

Now, that’s not saying you couldn’t be poisoned, get sick or die from something you picked up on Canadian streets. However, we have stringent health and food safety system here. Almost always, Canadians can buy food without a worry.

That’s a major reason why this latest example of tainted food coming out of a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto is such a shock. Canadian farmers often lament Canadian consumer’s penchant for cheap food. However, even farmers take for granted how safe that cheap food really is.

Maintaining that after this current crisis subsides will need to be job one. However, even with the tragedy, isn’t this vaguely familiar? Do you remember the wheat gluten laced with melamine, which somehow got into some pet food. As I said then, pet food isn’t regulated because Rover will eat just about anything. However, this latest food safety scare as tragic as it is, serves as an example of what can happen when the populace takes its food for granted. The question Canadian farmers might ask is if it can happen here in Canada, how about all that imported food product coming in from places like China and landing in big box Canadian department stores? Will there be a price to pay for this and is the listeriosis tragedy a precursor of things to come?

I certainly hope not. However, as a Canadian farmer with dirt firmly under my fingernails, I can feel the slippery slope of compromise in our food safety system. Moving forward will surely be an adventure.