Canada sits atop a list of countries ranked for their food safety systems, but has work to do in three key areas, a Conference Board of Canada report has concluded.
Canada tied with Ireland for first place in the study of 17 developed countries. However the study noted several weaknesses in the Canadian system, including the ability to trace food through the processing chain, tests on the levels of pesticides and other chemicals and establishing acceptable levels of radiation in what we eat, according to the report.
"Canada did well, but that doesn't mean it can rest on its laurels," said the report's co-author, Sylvain Charlebois, who is a professor and associate dean at the University of Guelph's College of Business.
The report is the third such ranking authored by Prof. Charlebois. Canada placed fifth in 2008 and fourth in 2010, the previous time the study was done. Benchmarking one country's system of food safety and regulations against those of others is an important way to encourage improvements, says the report, which calls for global harmonization of standards and protocols.
To compile the ranking, Prof. Charlebois and co-author Jean-Charles Le Vallée looked at data in 10 areas, including food-borne-illness rates, food recalls and dietary consumption studies. France, Britain, the United States and Norway followed Canada and Ireland in the ranking, while Belgium placed last, dragged down by heavy usage of pesticides on crops and higher rates of food-borne salmonella.
Canada's rates of food poisoning improved from 2010, earning it a "superior" ranking. The case that received the most media attention was the E. coli outbreak at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alta., which sickened 18 people. But Prof. Charlebois noted there were at least three other E. coli cases that made more people sick but received little public attention, including 30 illnesses linked to lettuce in the Maritimes and Ontario in 2012.
Several European countries, including Ireland, saw their food safety rankings hurt by the horse-meat scandal of 2013, in which supermarket beef produced by several companies was found to contain undeclared horse meat. The report said the subsequent recall involving 13 countries was an example of the need for greater oversight of the food supply chain.
A key weapon in the fight for a safer supply system is what the industry calls traceability, the ability to track a pound of ground beef back to the farm, or forward to the restaurant at which it is eaten. Such accountability is important in the case of a disease outbreak, allowing authorities to find the sources of a problem and fix it.
Prof. Charlebois said Canada has relied on a truncated system of traceability – one step up and one step down in the supply chain. And while the Canadian livestock and meat-producing industries pride themselves on being able to say where a steak was born, most food producers do not, or cannot, list the origins of the ingredients on their labels.
"I would argue traceability is the most powerful tool when it comes to managing risks across supply chains, and more and more as governments cut in inspection capacity, more and more industries will have to make themselves accountable to the public, and industry will have to make industry accountable to itself," Prof. Charlebois said in an interview. "How can you provide any guarantees about what's in food products? If you don't have a highly functional traceability system, it's very difficult to guarantee anything to the Canadian public."
Pesticide usage on Canadian farms was among the lowest of the countries surveyed, but there wasn't enough testing done at stores to ensure chemical levels on food were safe, Prof. Charlebois said. "We talk a lot about the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture, but we rarely make the link between those practices and true exposure for consumers," he said.
Another area in which Canada lagged was on acceptable levels of radiation in food, Prof. Charlebois said.
In response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan implemented the toughest standards for acceptable levels of radioactivity in drinking water, milk and food. The country's limit for radiation in drinking water is 10 bequerel per litre, compared with Canada's 100. For baby food, the Japanese limit is 50, compared with Canada's 1,000.