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Most foodborne illnesses at consumer, foodservice level: report

A new report says processors and producers hold the most responsibility to ensure food safety but illnesses are more often tied to consumers and foodservice


Toronto – A new report released this week says while it’s commonly assumed that farms and processors carry the brunt of the responsibility for foodborne illnesses, most of those illnesses are associated with food preparation at the consumer and restaurant level.

The Conference Board of Canada released the report, which is called Improving Food Safety in Canada: Toward a More Risk Responsive System, at its Canadian Food Summit 2012, which ran Feb. 7-8 in Toronto.

The report estimates that there are close to 6.8 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada each year. Most are mild and involve minor discomfort and inconvenience. It’s rare for consumption of unsafe food to cause serious illness or death in Canada.

Mistakes at home, foodservice

Seventy to 80 per cent of those food-poisoning illnesses are associated with mistakes in the final preparation and handling of food products.

About half of all food-borne illnesses are acquired in restaurants and other foodservice establishments, while many of the remaining cases are linked to food that is stored and prepared in the home.

While farms and food processors are less often the source of food illness, they too are part of the solution. Given their position in the food supply chain and the huge numbers of consumers, even infrequent failures can affect the health of many people.

Areas for improvement

The Conference Board of Canada report, prepared by the Board’s Centre for Food in Canada, also identifies five potential areas for improvement:

• Providing small and medium-size restaurants and food service operators with management advice and information on how they can minimize food safety risks and take effective action in the case of outbreaks. The current model emphasizes inspections, but they occur too infrequently to have a decisive impact on day-to-day food safety practices.

• Encouraging better behaviour among consumers by building on current consumer awareness programs. Consumers appear to know what they should be doing to prepare and handle food safely, but they often don’t put that knowledge to use.

• Harmonizing private standards to protect the public interest. It is not well known how well the alphabet soup of private food safety standards contributes to consumer protection.

• Making greater use of technology to improve visibility and traceability. Technologies, such as innovations in manufacturing processes, better machinery, food additives, and/or information technologies that assist in tracing the origins of ingredients or products, can help improve food safety. But some of these technologies entail new risks of their own. Canadians would be well-served by an open debate on the potential benefits and harm of food technology innovations.

• Adding resources to address the potential increase in risks from international food sources. As Canadian meals include more imported foods and ingredients than ever before, additional resources would help ensure that international foods meet Canadian standards.