Skip to main content

Europe is currently dealing with what is arguably one of the most embarrassing food safety incidents in history. The discovery of horsemeat in burgers – the first one was found in Ireland in early January through DNA testing – has turned into a full-blown, industry-wide investigation. Officials have revealed that lasagna labelled as beef from one big retailer of frozen foods, Findus, actually contained horsemeat; in some cases, the meat content was 100-per-cent horse.

Fraud investigators have been attempting to track down the origin of the meat. Government officials have been meeting with food retailers and have assured consumers that there is nothing inherently unsafe about eating horsemeat. Yet the malaise brought about by the scandal persists. Consumers are annoyed, and rightly so. Canadians should take note: Such an incident could happen in our country.

Many food businesses in Canada have traceability systems. But most of these systems are not interconnected, which makes data sharing between supply chain partners inefficient. Tracing food products and ingredients, both upstream and downstream, is almost impossible. Under our current traceability regime, it is possible to sell a food product with unidentified ingredients. It would be difficult for food retailers to know they were doing so unless they tested every single product they receive from suppliers. The costs would be prohibitive and passed on to consumers. This is not a desirable scenario.

The technology for a highly functional food traceability system exists, but the business case to support it has yet to be made. Survey after survey presents evidence that Canadians expect food safety but are unwilling to pay for it. Furthermore, Canada is a vast, sparsely populated country, which makes logistics complicated. Food traceability systems rely on sound logistics.

Some wonder whether the European horsemeat scandal was overblown. After all, horsemeat is a delicacy in many countries. It is high in iron. It is also tender, which is why it is a preferred meat for rare steaks or tartare. But the labelling of horsemeat as beef has breached one of the great gastronomic taboos of Britain, a country that prides itself on its love of certain animals, particularly horses. It can be argued that the same goes for English Canada. From a food safety standpoint, substances contained in horsemeat could be harmful to humans. Even worse, the implications for food products marked kosher or halal could be devastating. Traceability is essential for food systems in an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

When the United Kingdom was hit with its mad cow disease crisis in 1996, Canada did not appreciate how complex the situation was until we were hit with our own crisis in 2003. Billions of dollars later, we got it. The powers of food safety can never be underestimated, and food traceability can help us better manage risks across supply chains. We should not miss another opportunity to learn from the mistakes of our friends across the Atlantic.

If we are to enhance our food traceability systems, we need to do it right. Economics should trump politics. We also need to do it for the right reasons. The food industry needs to play a larger role in being accountable, both to itself and to consumers. Governments do not have the resources to offset consumer fears. More sustainable solutions, driven by the industry, are required in food safety.

Many industry CEOs around the world acknowledge that the one thing that can destroy their companies literally overnight is a food safety incident of some sort. We have already experienced a few crises. We should try to avoid another.

Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean at the University of Guelph's College of Management and Economics.