An off-the-cuff remark made in Toronto last week to more than 600 food industry experts by Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., sparked outrage in farmers’ market circles. “Farmers’ markets are great … One day they’re going to kill some people, though,” he said, quickly adding: “I’m just saying that to be dramatic, though.”
A shocking comment, perhaps, but the fact of the matter is, it may have already happened. Consumers can contract food-borne illnesses anywhere, including from the stores of supermarket giants such as Loblaws. Such is the reality of food systems. Yes, they were strong words from the head of Canada’s largest food retailer, but they point out that a broader, more rational debate on food safety is warranted in our country.
The 2003 mad cow crisis in Canada was really the first major food safety-related event our country had experienced. Although domestic demand for beef went up more than 5 per cent the year after the crisis began, it arguably became more of a trade issue than a food safety one. Some safety regulations did change, mostly on the primary production side.
Then E. coli, botulism and salmonella came, which progressively led us to Maple Leaf Foods and the tainted deli-meat crisis of 2008. Maple Leaf’s recall changed the psyche of many Canadians on how we manage risks as a country. In the past, we blamed Britain, Mexico and the United States, since many recalled products came from abroad. This time, it was a truly Canadian brand harming fellow Canadians, and it hit our Canadian identity to the core. To cope, many investigations were launched and task forces formed. As a result, several public health and food safety regulations were altered.
As a country, we spent millions making our food safety systems more robust, while survey after survey suggests that Canadians trust the safety of our foodstuff. What most Canadians don’t know is that most of the regulations were unintentionally projected to the larger players within the food industry. Maple Leaf, Loblaws and other food processors and distributors have become astute risk managers. Meantime, smaller food businesses are challenged by the extent of new food safety regulations, including those selling foods at farmers’ markets.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency spends more than $350-million on food safety a year – that’s $10 for every Canadian – excluding efforts from the provinces and municipalities. We’ve never had a public dialogue on the proper threshold for public expenditure related to food safety surveillance.
For industry, particularly for smaller enterprises trying to develop new markets both domestically and globally, the role of the Canadian food safety regulatory regime has become somewhat of an impediment to innovation and successful commercialization. The overall regulatory and policy framework within which the Canadian food industry operates itself interferes with our ability to effectively support industry in innovation, marketing and commercialization. Most Canadians wouldn’t know how difficult it really is to start a business in the food industry, mostly as a result of the array of food safety policies.
In food safety, the era in which crises dictate how we regulate should end. Since governments are continuously challenged by budgetary shortfalls, what’s needed is a more strategic approach on how we make the food industry more accountable to Canadians. We have the science, but more collaboration is warranted. One scenario would be to compel the larger, more resourceful companies to support the smaller ones. This is already happening, but such practices should be encouraged by regulators. Another option would be to customize regulations for smaller outfits without compromising the health of consumers.
We also need to celebrate our successes in food safety. The mere fact that the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak was discovered early is an achievement in itself. Many food safety experts still believe that we may have had one major outbreak before, but it went undetected. In the past, systems were not equipped to detect the scope and scale of these outbreaks. Regulatory changes stemming from the 2003 SARS outbreak allowed public health officials to recognize the problem early on. And the Maple Leaf affair allowed us to educate ourselves on what was then considered a relatively unknown pathogen.
Sylvain Charlebois is acting dean and professor at the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics.