Bakers Journal

Study identifies weakest links in food safety

February 10, 2012
By Bakers Journal

February 10, 2012, Toronto – The weakest links in food safety are found closest to the plates of Canadian diners, according to a Conference Board of Canada report, released on the second day of the Canadian Food Summit 2012.

“Canada’s food safety system generally does a good job at protecting the health of Canadians, but improvement is needed,” said Daniel Munro, principal research associate with the Conference Board of Canada. “It is commonly assumed that farms and food processing companies hold the most responsibility for ensuring safe food, and their role is critical. But most food-borne illnesses are associated with the preparation and storage practices of restaurants, foodservice operations, and consumers themselves.”
In its report, Improving Food Safety in Canada: Toward a More Risk Responsive System, the Conference Board estimates that there are close to 6.8 million cases of food-borne illness annually in Canada. Most are mild and involve minor discomfort and inconvenience. It is rare for consumption of unsafe food to cause serious illness or death in Canada. In 2008, there were 40 such deaths.
Seventy to 80 per cent of food poisoning illnesses are associated with mistakes in the final preparation and handling of food products. About half of all food-borne illnesses are acquired in restaurants and other foodservice establishments, while many of the remaining cases are linked to food that is stored and prepared in the home.
While farms and food processors are less often the source of food illness, they too are part of the solution. Given their position in the food supply chain and the huge numbers of consumers, even infrequent failures can affect the health of many people.
The Conference Board of Canada report, prepared by the Board’s Centre for Food in Canada, identifies five potential areas for improvement:

  • Providing small and medium restaurants and foodservice operators with management advice and information on how they can minimize food safety risks and take effective action in the case of outbreaks. The current model emphasizes inspections, but they occur too infrequently to have a decisive impact on day-to-day food safety practices.
  • Encouraging better behaviour among consumers by building on current consumer awareness programs. Consumers appear to know what they should be doing to prepare and handle food safely, but they often don’t put that knowledge to use.
  • Harmonizing private standards to protect the public interest. It is not well known how well the alphabet soup of private food safety standards contributes to consumer protection.
  • Making greater use of technology to improve visibility and traceability. Technologies, such as innovations in manufacturing processes, better machinery, food additives, and/or information technologies that assist in tracing the origins of ingredients or products, can help improve food safety. But some of these technologies entail new risks of their own. Canadians would be well-served by an open debate on the potential benefits and harm of food technology innovations.
  • Adding resources to address the potential increase in risks from international food sources. As Canadian meals include more imported foods and ingredients than ever before, additional resources would help ensure that international foods meet Canadian standards.

The report provides a foundation for dialogue on Canada’s food safety system. Its release coincided with the Canadian Food Summit 2012, held Feb. 7 and 8 in Toronto.

The Food Summit is part of the Centre for Food in Canada (CFIC), a multi-year Conference Board of Canada program of research and dialogue. About 25 companies and organizations have invested in the project, which will culminate in 2013 with the development of a Canadian Food Strategy.


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