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Food safety questioned

An environmental group raises the issue of food safety in Canada

In Canada, we know next to nothing about our food – where it’s grown, how it’s processed, what it contains. We don’t know if it contains genetically modified organisms, or whether the farmer got a fair return on his crops. We don’t know what fertilizers and pesticides were used or in what quantity. We don’t know if the food was tested for toxic substances or harmful bacteria.

Ignorance appears to be bliss.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Environmental Defence Canada has learned that many of our basic foods do not meet the basic safety requirements as spelled out in the Food & Drugs Act.

"Our findings put Canada’s food safety reputation in the Cuisinart," said Burkhard Mausbert, the executive director of Environmental Defence Canada in a news release. "Drug residues in eggs, lead in maple syrup and phenol in honey. Canadians can be excused for skipping breakfast."

Among their findings:

• One in four eggs tested does not meet food safety standards for growth-promoting drugs;

• About 50 per cent of honey imported from the U.S. contains the germicidal cleaner phenol;

• Of the maple syrup tested, 56 per cent contained lead residues;

• One in 20 imported sweet peppers and strawberries exceeds pesticide limits.

The figures were compiled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency from their food monitoring program. According to the EDC, this was only a random inquiry. There may be other foods with various types of contamination.

It’s not that we don’t take food safety seriously in Canada – we did find these problems – it’s the fact that we don’t know what we can do about it that’s so distressing.

Food used to travel from farm to market. These days produce goes from farm to distributor to processor to distributor to market, spending days in refrigeration while travelling thousands of miles. Most of our meat is processed at the slaughterhouse, rather than at your local butcher’s. Processed goods are processed to the point that they can live on the shelf for years.

As a result of this system, our food is open to more contaminants.

"Food moves over greater distances than ever before," said Rod MacRae, a consultant with EDC. "The possibilities for inadvertent contamination are endless."

In other words, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has to work backwards to find out where contamination occurred. In the case of too many growth hormones, it’s easy to pinpoint the grower. In the case of food contamination by bacteria, you have to suspect every part of the chain.

It’s also an overwhelming job. Most grocery store chains have an inventory of more than 20,000 items, most of which are food related.

To keep the public informed, the EDC is lobbying Health Canada to release all of its food safety data, and to update the information regularly. They claim that the government has 30 years of reports and studies in its vaults that should be shared with everyone, not just CFIA scientists.

"Fixing this problem begins with government giving Canadians real information," said Mausberg. "That means more transparency and more testing."

EDC also believes that the government’s testing procedures are dated because Health Canada tests food based on data that is 30 years old that was compiled from 1970 to 1972 in a Nutrition Canada survey. Mausberg believes our eating habits have changed considerably in that time, and that new data is necessary to determine what’s safe.

For example, the government may have determined that a certain amount of a given pesticide is acceptable for consumption. What they don’t take into account is the fact that we could be eating more of the products that the pesticides are used on. In some cases this could put us over the safe limit, and lead to unsafe concentrations of toxins in our bodies.

The revelation about lead in our syrup and growth drugs in our eggs couldn’t have come at a worse time for Lyle Vanclief, the federal minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. In June of 2001, the federal government announced a campaign with the provincial agriculture ministers to brand Canadian food as "number one in the world in food safety and environmentally sound production, and innovation," said Vanclief.

The announcement also came prior to the 2002 Canadian Food & Beverage Show, which attracts international food buyers from five continents.

"The goal is to promote the sale and export of Canadian foodservice products and familiarize international buyers with the breadth, safety and high quality of Canadian agri-food products," said Ezio Di Emanuele, the acting regional director for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

While not all of EDC’s discoveries are Made-In-Canada products, it does raise the question of how much the public has the right to know. It seems unethical to market our food internationally as being safe, while keeping Canadians in the dark about the safety of their own food.

The CFIA does issue frequent food recalls when they feel there is a serious problem. According to their Web site, there have been five recalls in the first two weeks of February:

Feb. 15 – Allergy Alert – Presence of undeclared gluten in Mi-Del brand "Gluten Free" and "Wheat Free" Arrowroot Cookies.

Feb. 13 – Health Hazard Alert – Dairyland brand 1% partly skimmed milk may contain a chemical sanitizer.

Feb. 13 – Health Hazard Alert – Abott’s Choice brand cheese products may contain Listeria bacteria, which can lead to food poisoning.

Feb. 13 – Health Hazard Alert – Delahven Orchards brand non pasteurized fresh apple cider may contain E.coli.

Feb. 12 – Allergy Alert – Presence of undeclared wheat in Cedar brand Spicy Falafel Legume Mix.

That’s light for the CFIA – there were 20 recalls during the previous month, and 16 in December.

It’s comforting to know that the CFIA will issue a recall if they feel there is a serious risk.

But it would be even more comforting if they would let the consumers decide risk for themselves, and at least give us a choice of whether we want to steer clear of eggs with growth drugs or maple syrup with lead.