Acknowledge risks, and stop spinning
Posted: August 28th, 2007 - 11:38pm by Doug PowellThe Perishable Pundit recounts how some Canadian newspapers wrote puff pieces on produce food safety and how a lot of it was import related.
The Pundit then uncritically says, "Thanks to Danny Dempster and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association for manning the barricade" and apparently responding with PR palp.
Here's our note in response on produce food safety. And we are all behind and work with farmers who want to do the right microbiological thing.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates that 11-13 million Canadians -- about 30 per cent of the population -- get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control place their estimate at 76 million-- about 25 per cent -- of Americans who also get sick from food and water. The Australians put the figure closer to 30 per cent, as does the World Health Organization. The Australian and American estimates are based on active surveillance – which means that health officials go out and test collections of stool samples for the various bugs that make people poop and puke.
Estimates such as these suggest that food safety is a pretty big deal for everyone, including farmers, processors, grocers, restaurateurs and consumers.
Dr. Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety recently told a scientific meeting that in the 25 years preceding 1997, there were 190 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce in the U.S. and that in the five years that followed, that number jumped to 249. Doyle predicted that produce and other foods from plants will be the dominant vehicles for foodborne illnesses, accounting for more than 50 per cent of all illnesses.
A group at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affair (OMAFRA) estimates that 41 per cent of foodborne illness in Ontario can be attributed to produce. This exceeds every other food group including meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
Dan Dempster, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, says they are all wrong (Fruits, veggies don't deserve a bad rap, Calgary Herald, August 21).
Dempster, as the head of a food industry lobby group, apparently got a peak at a PHAC study that no one else has seen -- at least not publicly -- and claimed that fewer than 3 per cent of the 1,127 outbreaks of foodborne illness reported in Canada over the past eight years were definitively linked to fresh fruits and vegetables, and that produce "is actually the safest fresh food group."
Not having special access to the study, we can only speculate as to the source of Dempster's claims, but, having worked with farmers who grow fresh produce in Canada for the past decade, as well as the international scientific and regulatory community, Dempster's argument seems to hinge on the use of the word “definitively.”
So very little is definitive in outbreaks of foodborne illness (although the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 200 and killed four last fall was definitively linked to fresh produce -- spinach). Fresh produce is the single biggest source of foodborne illness in North America today, precisely because it is fresh. There is no kill step. The challenge is to maximize a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables while actively minimizing the very real risks.
It's easy to write off Dempster's article as a marketing puff piece -- which it is --especially since he had a real opportunity to acknowledge the risks associated with fresh fruits and vegetables and focus on the proactive efforts of the produce industry is taking to actively reduce them.
Dr. Douglas Powell is scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University and Ben Chapman is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph.