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Galen Weston

Galen Weston has provoked sharp criticism over comments he made about the safety of food at farmers' markets. But according to The Toronto Star, the grocery retailer Loblaw says its executive chairman was misunderstood.

During a speech at the Canadian Food Summit in Toronto, Mr. Weston was reported as saying: "Farmers' markets are great… One day they're going to kill some people though."

He quickly added: "I'm just saying that to be dramatic though."

Those remarks prompted outcry from supporters of farmers' markets. However, in an e-mail to the Star, Loblaw's vice-president of public relations said Mr. Weston's comments were misinterpreted, and were merely intended to raise the issue of food safety and the need to devote appropriate resources to inspections and certification throughout the food system.

"He does not believe nor did he imply that farmers' markets are less safe than any other forms of food distribution, including grocery stores," Ms. Hunter said, according to the Star. "We understand that the comments concerned or offended some, and we regret this outcome."

Still, some argue the implication that farmers' markets could pose health threats is wrong, and question whether the chairman of the supermarket giant is the right person to raise the issue.

"Pretty sure you could also die from the moldy food I've seen in a Loblaws produce section. Just saying Galen Weston," one Twitter user wrote.

"Galen Weston painting farmer's [sic]markets as unsafe is hilarious, considering his commitment to unhealthy factory foods," tweeted another.

As The Globe's Chris Nuttall-Smith pointed out in an interview on CBC, farmers markets are already inspected by provincial health authorities and subject to tight regulations. Increased inspection by the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which he said Loblaw told him Mr. Weston wanted to see, would make it incredibly difficult for small-scale farmers.

Furthermore, he noted Loblaws has previously had issues with food safety itself.

"Loblaws was selling Maple Leaf products during the Listeria outbreak a few years ago. Loblaws President's Choice brand baby formula made a number of babies sick not long ago and these outbreaks happen all the time," Mr. Nuttall-Smith said.

By comparison, he said, outbreaks and illnesses at farmers' markets are rare.

The issue of improving food safety, it seems, may not necessarily be so much a matter of tightening regulations and boosting inspections, but a matter of trust. Regardless of the size of the operation, food is arguably safest in the hands of scrupulous producers. Conversely, whether it's at a farmers' market stall or at a major grocery chain, food is probably the least safe when it's been produced by those who are careless – or worse.