Over the past half century, the roster of harmful microscopic offenders that scientists blame for sickening people via food has expanded from about 50 key bugs to 250.
Experts also know that food-borne illnesses are the largest class of emerging disease in Canada and that about 35,000 Canadians get sick each day from ingesting them. They struggle, though, to explain why this occurs or how to prevent it.
A unique new graduate program in food safety announced on Friday at the McGill University is an effort to change that. Anchored by a $1.5-million gift from renowned Canadian toxicologist Ian C. Munro and his wife, Jayne, the program will attempt to bridge the gaps between government and industry research on the factors that influence the safety and quality of the food supply.
Research priorities will be decided by an advisory panel of academics, government officials and industry representatives; the food manufacturers Kellogg's and Nestlé have pledged funds to the program, which will be headed by Canada's first academic chair in food safety.
"They wanted a neutral, independent place where they could come for third-party advice," Dr. Chandra A. Madramootoo, dean of McGill's Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said of the university's industry partners.
He said the program has been in the works since 2006 as a "response to the lack of sustained, long-term dedicated research by the government" on practical food safety matters.
That dearth is partly due to the fact that responsibility for food safety and regulation and the drivers that influence both are divided among government departments and levels of government. "They're all part of the game, but they're all doing their own thing in their own corners," Dr. Madramootoo said.
Ron Doering, an Ottawa lawyer who was head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency until 2002, has repeatedly defended Canada's food safety system as one of the best in the world. But he admitted on Friday there is room for improvement.
"Increases in trade, the size of production facilities, and new, emerging pathogens mean that food safety is a significant public health issue," he said.
Marilyn Knox, president of Nestlé Nutrition Canada, said the private sector and governments have struggled in the past to hire employees who are well-schooled in regulatory science as well as food safety issues. Most are trained in-house or sent to the United States for specialty courses.
McGill, she said, has the potential to fill what industry sees as a global gap.
"This could be a world centre for developing regulatory scientists," she said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could just let down our defences and really talk about what we could do to proactively improve the safety of the food system? That's something McGill can bring."