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An employee of the microbiology and toxicology department at the chemical and veterinary examination office Stuttgart runs tests on bean sprouts in Fellbach, Germany, on June 7, 2011. (MARIJAN MURAT/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee of the microbiology and toxicology department at the chemical and veterinary examination office Stuttgart runs tests on bean sprouts in Fellbach, Germany, on June 7, 2011. (MARIJAN MURAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Sylvain Charlebois

Lessons from an E. coli outbreak Add to ...

As Europe is being hit hard by a vicious E. coli outbreak, world health authorities are realizing their own food safety systems may not be adequate to manage emerging risks. In Canada, we might assume that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would better deal with a similar outbreak. But the food crisis response policies in both Canada and the United States are just as reactive, and are challenged by different complications arising from local conditions. So when a crisis occurs in another part of the world, no matter how near or remote, it’s vital to consider potential learning opportunities in case a similar issue arises here.

European health officials may never know the source of the outbreak (fingers were first pointed – wrongly – at Spanish cucumbers, then German sprouts). The two largest European countries, Germany and France, are particularly challenged by population density, agricultural proximity and space restrictions.

Both Canada and the U.S. rely on a “voluntary recall” approach to food safety. But practices are changing. With the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gained the ability to order mandatory recalls of contaminated food. Because the U.S. is such an important trading partner, it’s expected that Canada will follow suit.

The focus of the Food Safety Modernization Act is compelling: It contends we need to race ahead of the next bacteria, rather than retroactively develop tests for each new strain. More generally, instead of responding to each crisis, a systemic approach to managing risks is critical. For that, we need better partnerships between industry and government. Such a strategy would also require developing policies in concert with industry and trade groups, rather than conflicting with their interests.

The new act will augment the FDA’s authority to inspect imported food, a source perceived by many American consumers as a food safety threat. Managing risks at the source, regardless of the product’s origin, is a promising approach, and Canada should take note.

Thus far, the legislation appears sound – that is, until we address the issue of funding. President Barack Obama is seeking $955-million, but Republicans want to reduce the FDA’s budget to $750-million, $87-million less than the current figure. To properly support the new act, the FDA would require an extra $1.4-billion over the next five years. This amount is more than double the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s annual operating budget.

As much as possible, partisan debate over food safety should be avoided in Canada. Due to our geographical and political landscape, the reality in Canada is quite different. We need a Canadian version of the Food Safety Modernization Act, but that doesn’t simply mean more funding for the CFIA.

The government has already invested millions in the CFIA, yet most Canadians don’t know what the agency does for them. While funding is key to success, transparency and accountability are crucial to fulfilling mandates. Before resorting to the “we need to fund more inspections” mantra, we should appreciate the CFIA’s current return on investment.

To achieve this, the CFIA needs to become a better communicator of risks to the public. Even if many Canadians are aware of the European outbreak, it took almost a week for the CFIA to post any information on its consumer-unfriendly website.

We should accept that we can’t prevent every toxic food outbreak. It’s impossible to test for every illness-causing form of E. coli, even the types we already understand. Outbreaks occur from time to time; our hope is to limit their scope. As well, outbreaks compel policy-makers and industry alike to make our systems better, more efficient and adaptable to new environments. The European E. coli outbreak is a call to review our systems, but throwing money at a food safety problem without being strategic is the last thing we should do.

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

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