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Nov/Dec 2008 – Food Safety and Safe Food

Illness and, tragically, death weren’t the only consequences of the listeriosis outbreak last fall. There has been a lot of wrongheaded thinking too.

For example, I’ve heard many supporters of small processing plants say that the outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods was related to the size of the operation. As if a 250,000 square foot processing plant was somehow more prone to food safety problems than one a fraction that size. Nonsense. The problem—and it is a significant one—with a big processing plant is that when something goes haywire a lot more people are affected.

The level of criticism of Maple Leaf Foods and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency following the outbreak also reflected this country’s (dare I say it?) unhealthy and unreasonable obsession with food safety. We demand perfect food safety and nail someone to the door if we don’t achieve it. That might be okay, sort of, if we held other aspects of everyday life to the same standard. But we do not. We know for a fact that traffic fatalities drop as highway speeds are reduced (up to 38 per cent reduction for every 20/km, according to some research). Yet, through a form of social contract we have decided that, in return for all of us being able to hurtle along highways at 100 kph, or 120 kph, some Canadians will die. It’s as formulaic as making coffee. The faster we go the more people die. By holding food processors to an almost impossibly high standard we create a circumstance where only large-scale plants can afford to operate.

We need to accept that food can not be made 100 per cent safe 100 per cent of the time.

Maybe what is most troubling about the reaction to the listeriosis outbreak is that while we focus on food safety no one is discussing the quality of food. We pack on extra weight, cram our youngsters so full of Twinkies and nutritionless white bread that Type II diabetes is now a major health concern for health officials across the country, yet we profess to be concerned about food safety.

Contaminated food is one issue (and, yes, a serious one) but crappy food itself is a much larger issue.