New regulations, technologies and industry attitudes are ensuring consumers are safe and Canada’s food system prospers
By Treena Hein
Food safety has evolved in significant ways over the last 10 years or so in Canada and other jurisdictions, and 2017 is proving to be no exception. In January the federal government issued a call for public comments (which closed on April 21) relating to planned updates to the Safe Food for Canadians Act, first introduced in 2012. Proposed changes will require food businesses to put more preventive controls in place to manage food safety risks, and to reduce the time it takes to remove unsafe foods from the marketplace.
In giving the rationale for these updates, the government points to several trends affecting food safety, such as advances in science and technology, the emergence of highly integrated food supply chains, and changes in consumer preferences. In addition, it states that “the increasingly global marketplace for food commodities has created more opportunities for the introduction and spread of contaminants that may put Canadian food safety at risk. Foodborne illness continues to impose significant health and economic costs on Canadians, and recent food safety incidents in Canada have demonstrated where the current federal food regulatory framework must be strengthened.”
A recent American report, commissioned by the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute, identifies other trends. According to Food Safety: In a State of Transformation, while food safety progress has been made by many companies, “there are still critical risks and opportunities that need to be explored.” Among five major trends, the report points out that as organic, antibiotic-free, preservative-free and locally sourced food captures more market share, increased adaptation of food safety practices is required. Secondly, busier modern lifestyles mean that spending on prepackaged and ready-to-eat products is growing, but these types of foods are most often subject to recalls. “Ready-to-eat meals require complex production processes,” the authors note, “with numerous ingredients from various suppliers coming together on a ‘just in time’ basis.” A third trend is heightened consumer demand for transparency. Lastly, “rising incomes in developing markets is driving growth in demand for animal protein and dairy,” with the implication that bacteria found in these foods may potentially cause more foodborne illness at a time when our population is aging and at increased risk due to generally weaker immune systems.
Canadian telecommunications company TELUS, in partnership with Digi International, has introduced an interesting new technology to improve food safety. Digi Honeycomb, a cutting-edge automated system, wirelessly monitors the temperature of perishable foods in any scenario or location. Jamie Williams, vice-president and general manager of Digi Cold Chain Solutions at Digi International, says that an average of 30 minutes of labour per day can typically be saved through use of the system in a food manufacturing plant, in a warehouse or during transport. “It ultimately comes down to two factors when determining how much time a customer can save,” he notes. “How many items can we 100 per cent automate by placing sensors in the equipment, and for those scenarios where we can’t 100 per cent automate, how much can we significantly speed up/improve the time it takes to complete these procedures using our wireless probe/tablet checklist component?” Of course, automation also provides the benefits of consistency and accuracy over human record-keeping, as long as the automated system is functioning correctly. In addition, Williams says the ability of Digi Honeycomb to provide long-term records is very important to customers, as is its capacity for information-sharing across the supply chain. To date, Digi Honeycomb is being used in more than 2,500 facilities in Canada, the U.S. and the UK.
On the inspection and testing front, P&P Optica of Waterloo, Ont. is offering a highly innovative new way to replace subjective, error-prone visual inspection and time-consuming lab tests. This real-time technology, called PPO, scans the entire width of a conveyor belt, employing analysis of chemical “signatures” to differentiate food from any foreign materials. While X-ray machines and metal detectors can find metal particles, P&P Optica says its technology is the only one that can detect plastics (as well as metal and other materials) — even white plastic on pale or white food. It can also identify factors related to food product quality. P&P Optica has two systems up and running in Canada so far, one scanning produce, the other meat.
P&P Optica began focusing on the food processing industry several years ago after recognizing that the industry faces significant problems beyond the issue of inferior food grading due to human error or existing methods — the problem of food unnecessarily being allocated as waste, and a lack of any way to detect a range of foreign objects. In addition, PPO provides the benefit of real-time analysis, allowing food processors to immediately identify and deal with the problem.
“Food is handled by multiple people and passes through various types of equipment,” notes P&P Optica CEO Olga Pawluczyk. “It’s conveyed throughout the plant with forklifts, pipes or on conveyor belts. Every time food products are handled or stored, the possibility of contamination occurs.” As an example, Pawluczyk points to an incident in late March in which Oklahoma City-based OK Foods recalled over 900,000 lbs of breaded chicken products due to possible contamination with extraneous materials. “Tyson had a similar recall late last year,” she adds, “when plastic was detected in chicken products.”
Food safety excellence
Every year, Guelph, Ont.-based NSF International hands out its Food Safety Recognition Awards to Canadian food and beverage companies and individuals that have made great contributions to food safety, whether by nurturing food safety excellence within an organization, contributing to advances in food safety science, or engaging in public education and action. The NSF Food Safety Excellence Award for 2017 went to The Original Cakerie in London, Ont. Its Quality Assurance manager, Anal Dave, explains that both food safety and food quality factors at his company were considered in vying for the award, as well as an extensive list of factors relating to workplace communication; continuous improvement; risk-based systems relating to supplier approval; food fraud analysis and food safety; the establishment of process controls; staff appreciation programs; employee engagement and more. While he does not specifically list new food safety technologies or methods recently implemented at The Original Cakerie, Dave does say a focus on continuous improvement lies at his company’s core. “We are in constant lookout for how to improve,” he says, “and for systems and technology we can implement to increase productivity as well as effectiveness.”
In Dave’s view, Canada is on the verge of a major shift in the way food safety is perceived and managed. “The expectation of providing safe food is increasing,” he says, “and the implications of not meeting such requirements are becoming severe.” In terms of the keys to successful future food safety — as well as successful prevention of food-related fraud — Dave sees a need for more rapid and accurate microbiological testing methods, as well as increased availability of genome sequencing.