VEZINA: We are good at food safety today, but not perfect

Some foods are delivered to the laboratory and store shelves at the same time for sale to customers

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A large E. coli outbreak at some Calgary daycare centers has reignited public concerns about food safety in Canada.

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Thirty years ago there was a serious E. coli outbreak in a US fast food chain. The response was essentially to ignore the matter and direct complaints to the company’s lawyers.

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This is now used as a prime example of what not to do in a commercial food poisoning incident.

Today, the issue of food safety is much better understood and respected, but there are still significant weaknesses in the process that cause concern.

For an E. coli outbreak to occur, a few things have to happen at the same time.

First, a failure of contamination.

Dangerous food contaminants, including E. coli, are often traced far back in the food supply chain. For example, with meat to the slaughterhouse and the initial logistics and processing by the company involved.

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A “bad batch” of contaminated food can be significant in size and spread both domestically and internationally, depending on what was done at the time of the original outbreak.

Second, the process of detecting and containing contaminated food must have failed before it is released to the public.

There are numerous laboratories that test foods along the entire supply chain. Depending on the food, again using meat as an example, these laboratories examine samples both before and after cooking. There’s even a process where “secret shoppers” buy food straight from supermarket shelves to see if anything was missed during containment.

Laboratories even independently test packaging samples to determine whether the source of contamination occurred at that time.

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In the case of contaminated meat, the contamination must survive the cooking process for an outbreak to occur.

When it comes to E. coli in burgers, for example, minimum temperature standards explicitly apply in fast food restaurants for this reason. Burgers are meant to be cooked long enough at a high enough temperature that E. coli cannot survive, even if the patty was contaminated before it arrived at the restaurant.

However, cooking is impractical in some cases where E. coli may be present, such as in salads and unpasteurized milk.

While the industry has made great strides in three decades in combating contaminated food, people may be surprised to learn how vulnerable this process remains at step two – the food laboratories.

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To illustrate, some foods are delivered to the laboratory and store shelves at the same time for sale to customers. The reason is that many foods expire quickly and rapid tests are required.

In these cases, any delay in the testing process increases the risk that someone may have already eaten the contaminated food, become ill, and be in the hospital before the tests to find contaminated samples have been conducted.

A logical response would be to delay the release of all foods until they have been tested in the laboratory. However, in reality this is often impractical given the current state of technology.

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Here is an example of a single point of failure that can occur.

In laboratories there are logistics specialists who receive food samples. Ideally, they label them properly and send them to the correct department. However, if they are not labeled correctly or not labeled at all due to an oversight, they cannot be tested.

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The entire operation depends on the logisticians. When there is a backlog, there is a backlog in everything.

In these cases, testing is delayed while people are already consuming the food, which amounts to crossing your fingers and hoping the food isn’t contaminated.

Some foods can be stored safely for long periods of time, reducing the problem of delays in testing before the food spoils.

On the other hand, some organizations do not test their food – so due diligence is not as mandatory as many assume.

If Canada wants to rely on preventative testing to ensure contaminated food doesn’t make people sick and kill people, we need to seriously look at what regulations can be made stricter and more enforceable, while working with the food industry to ensure the regulations apply practical.

Ultimately, the public only cares that the food they consume is safe and doesn’t make or kill them.

This should not be an unreasonable expectation.

— Alex Vezina is CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. and teaches disaster and emergency management at York University. He can be reached at

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