Experts representing consumers, industry, government and academics gather
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Just how safe is Canada's food? The answer proves to be equivocal, even for food science professor Mansel Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety (CRIFS) at the University of Guelph.
“We do have a fairly safe food supply in Canada,” says Griffiths. “It's not as if we have catastrophic outbreaks. When you think of Canadian food, you think of the safest food in the world.”
Lowering the risk of food-borne illness and helping to ensure that various agencies, industry and academics have a comprehensive picture of food safety in Canada are the goals of a symposium and two-day workshop he has organized in Guelph this week.
The event, which brings together experts in food safety representing consumers, industry, government and academics, is intended to discuss ideas on improving food safety and security to be shared with regulators, industry and other groups. Organizers hope to write a set of recommendations to guide regulators and governments in developing a comprehensive national food-safety strategy.
“We thought it was an opportune time to bring the interested parties together to look at the system holistically and try to identify things we're doing right and maybe things that could be improved,” says Griffiths, who holds an Industrial Dairy Chair in Microbiology.
A key improvement would see regulators and government inspectors collecting and sharing basic information about illnesses caused by contaminated food. He estimates that, for every case reported to authorities, up to 300 cases may go unreported. (Based on U.S. estimates of as many as 76 million cases of food-borne illness a year, Canada may see seven million such cases annually.)
More comprehensive information is fragmented among federal and provincial agencies, including Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the recently created Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), says Griffiths. Contrast that with the system of so-called sentinel sites for data collection and communication run by the United States.
“The problem with food safety in Canada has been the difficulty in getting information on how many people come down with food-borne illnesses and the sources of those illnesses,” he says.
Learning more about the extent of the problem may help in designing better ways to prevent disease and sickness. He'd like to see co-ordinated surveillance of those illnesses and more integrated inspection, from federal oversight of international exporters to municipal inspection of restaurants and food stores.
Griffiths suggests that universities, including U of G, may become part of a sentinel network patterned after that in the United States. Referring to Guelph research in such topics as food ecology, epidemiology, microbiology, food policy and process engineering, he says: “We have arguably the largest single number of people working in this area in Canada.”
Among other projects, he studies techniques for detecting microbes such as Salmonella in food, including micro-organisms that might be used in bioterrorism. He notes that CRIFS recently earned accreditation for Level 3 biocontainment. (About 40 laboratories in Canada are designated Level 3. Health Canada's National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg is the only biosafety Level 4 lab in the country, built to allow scientists to work safely with the most deadly human and animal pathogens.)
Delegates to this week's Guelph symposium include U of G faculty from the Ontario Agricultural College and the Ontario Veterinary College. The group will discuss food-safety research, education and training, surveillance, inspection, and policies and regulations.
The event is sponsored by the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Program, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, CFIA, PHAC, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, the Ontario Food Protection Association, U of G, the Guelph Food Technology Centre, Steritech and Agricorp.
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University of Guelph