Food: material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy. – Merriam-Webster
Needless to say, food is essential to sustain life and without it, we would cease to exist. The food we eat, however, is not always safe for consumption as it’s often riddled with contaminants, including: bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals, allergens, and toxins that effectively make the very thing we depend on for sustenance quite dangerous for our continued survival. Pathogens such as Salmonella, Norovirus, and E. coli not only have the potential to cause severe illness, but they may even lead to death in certain cases.
In Canada, around 4 million (1 in 8) people are affected by a foodborne illness every year, leading to 11,600 annual hospitalizations and 238 annual deaths. Importantly, 60% of foodborne illnesses are due to unknown causes. For the month of April alone, there have been more than 6 national food recalls across Canada, including the following:
- Miss Vickie’s Jalapeño Kettle Cooked Potato Chips
- Various brands of breaded fish and seafood products
- Various brands of flour and flour products
- Wholesome Farms Sundae Cup products
- Yoso soy products
- Thai Kitchen Original Pad Thai Stir-fry Sauce
It’s only in recent history that we have changed the way we obtain our food. With the introduction of mass-produced food items, accompanied by globalization of our food supply, we are no longer confined to consuming locally sourced and seasonally available foods. Instead, we have access to a large variety of diverse foods from around the globe today. Alongside mass-production and globalization are changes in food production practices to keep up with demand: an increase in the use of pesticides and antibiotics has paved the way for potential contaminant, further challenging food safety.
This development is a cause for concern as food quality has declined with mass production. Starting at the farm, the food we buy often passes through multiple hands before it ends up in our homes and on our plates – no longer do we have the luxury of knowing exactly where our food comes from. As a consequence, the process by which we obtain our food has given rise to concerns about ensuring the safety of our food.
So, how can we know that the food sold to us is safe to consume? What safeguards are in place to protect us? Importantly, can we trust the food we eat?
In Canada, three different government agencies work together to keep the food we eat safe. Health Canada develops food safety standards and policies to prevent the spread of foodborne diseases. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, conversely, inspects the food industry to ensure that the food it sells is safe for consumption. Finally, the Public Health Agency of Canada monitors foodborne outbreaks and educates the public on how they can protect themselves.
The Safe Food for Canadians Act, enacted in 2012, was a major step in ensuring food safety for all who live in Canada. Recently, the Government of Canada has also proposed new legislation to strengthen regulations by further protecting Canadians from unsafe foods imported into the country and sold across the nation, with the food industry required to put preventive controls into place. Despite there being room for improvement, The Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada at the top for food safety, among other OECD nations, tied with Ireland, but ahead of the US and UK.
Without a concerted effort by our governments and private industry, contaminants may pass into us. Although there may be laws in place for food safety, strict enforcement is needed by the food industry itself to protect the health of its consumers. To ensure that your food is safe to consume at home, follow the WHO’s five keys for food safety:
- Keep clean
- Separate raw and cooked food
- Cook thoroughly
- Keep food at safe temperature
- Use safe water and raw materials
For more information on how to safely handle your food, visit the Government of Canada’s interactive guide to food safety here.