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Take responsibility for the Food you Eat

19 Jun

Food Safety

A safer food supply 

Buyer bewareLast Updated May 23, 2007

CBC News 

Tainted spinach. Botulism in carrot juice. Concerns that a tainted food additive in pet food imported from China may have made its way into the human food chain. These three major crises since September 2006 have left many wondering whether Canadians can trust their food supply.It is the job of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to keep tabs on the safety of the food we eat. The CFIA is the sole agency that provides all federal inspection services related to food safety, economic fraud, trade-related requirements, animal and plant disease, and pest programs. The decision to centralize those responsibilities with one agency was meant to enhance food safety systems: One set of standards, enforced by one agency.The CFIA administers and/or enforces the following acts:·         Food and Drugs Act (as it relates to food). ·         Canada Agricultural Products Act. ·         Meat Inspection Act. ·         Fish Inspection Act. ·         Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act (as it relates to food). ·         Plant Protection Act. ·         Health of Animals Act. ·         Administrative Monetary Penalties Act. ·         Seeds Act. ·         Feeds Act. ·         Fertilizers Act. ·         Canadian Food Inspection Act. ·         Plant Breeders’ Rights Act. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are among a total of 15 agencies that have responsibility over the safety of the food supply. Congressional hearings that opened in mid-April this year were convened — in part — to determine if those responsibilities should be consolidated, along the lines of the CFIA.The CFIA may be regarded as a model system by many countries, but it can’t catch all problems in the food supply.“We can’t provide zero risk because it doesn’t exist,” Paul Mayers, executive director of the animal products directorate with the CFIA, told CBC News. “What we want to do is make sensible use of the resources available to minimize that risk to consumers to the extent that we can.”Mayers says inspectors can’t check every food product that enters Canada or moves from farm to supermarket shelves. What they can do is try to identify risk and then decide how to apply available resources to make sure what might be a risk doesn’t turn into a major problem.No need for food paranoia, says professorThe CFIA issues advisories about potential problems with foods on a regular basis. The agency issued more than 50 advisories between January and the middle of May. The vast majority of them were for problems like possible traces of nuts that were not listed on the label or traces of milk protein, also undeclared on the label.“It’s still a relatively small amount of the food that we eat that is contaminated,” Mansell Griffiths, professor in food science department at the University of Guelph, told CBC News. “Generally we should be concerned about some of the events of the past few months, but I don’t think we need to become paranoid about the safety of our food supply.”Griffiths says there are limits to what food inspection can effectively achieve. He would like to see a much more proactive approach to safeguarding our food supply.“Instead of putting the onus on government to protect us, we should be putting the onus on the companies that supply the food that it’s safe to distribute. When it gets to the level of stopping it at the borders, it’s a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to put the onus on the supplier.”At Kansas State University, Dr. Douglas Powell heads the International Food Safety Network. It’s focusing on ways to compel everyone in the farm-to-fork food safety system — individual producers, retail employees and consumers — to acknowledge and adopt best practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. He says we shouldn’t just be concerned about food imported from countries where standards may not mesh with ours. Locally grown food has a role to play, too.“It doesn’t matter whether [food] comes from China or down the road, the question is — is it microbiologically safe? And whether that farmer is 10,000 miles [16,000 kilometres] away or 10 miles [16 kilometres] away, you have to ask the questions: what are you doing to reduce microbial contamination on that product?”Consumers also responsible for food safety: MayersPowell notes that food retailers will label their products as certified organic, hormone- or antibiotic-free, and free range. But they won’t use terms like “microbiologically safe.”“I think the time has come, and consumers are savvy enough and want this stuff because there’s been so many outbreaks, that if there’s a way to figure out how to market microbiologically safe food, you’d find a good market for it.”Mayers notes that while the CFIA has a huge role to play in identifying and acting on risk in the food supply, the consumer also has responsibilities.“We want consumers to be aware, we want them to play their role in handling and preparing products appropriately, but we equally want them to pay attention to situations that arise and if products are recalled, to respond to those recalls appropriately in terms of removing those products from the set of products that they might choose or use in any period of time.”Preliminary results of a study from the University of Regina released in April suggested the CFIA is really good at getting out word of recalls — but not very good at following up afterwards. The survey found that people are aware when there is a recall, but don’t know what to do about it and don’t know when it’s safe to eat a product again.  

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