Benson Wong: Let’s not eat contaminated food in Canada
By Benson Wong
On September 16, the public was first notified that contaminated beef products processed in an Alberta XL Foods plant had been sold in supermarkets across Canada. To some, this would have just been “another one of those food recalls”. This is no big surprise, since how many times have you heard on the news that there has been a recall or allergy alert for mislabelled snacks containing nuts or foods that may possess salmonella bacteria? Pick any month for the past couple of years on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s website archive and you will notice that there has usually been some sort of food product recall or allergy alert at least once every week.
Due to the recent highly publicized E. coli O157:H7 bacteria-contaminated beef recall, Canadians have been reminded of their false sense of food security and that the food on their plate may not be as safe as they think. Recent research led by Janneke de Jongea and Andrew Papadopoulos has further shown that the public has strong concerns about food safety and contaminated food.
So what type of correctives should be applied? Here are some changes I propose to be implemented.
First and foremost, I strongly believe we need to decentralize the farms and meat processing plants. According to the 2011 census of agriculture farm and farm operators, the number of farms is currently decreasing in Canada and many are being converted or amalgamated into larger commercial farms. Consumers are at the mercy of mega-corporation-owned farms and operating plants when it comes to food safety and supplying the public with meat. As a result, when beef from the XL Foods plant was recalled, almost every supermarket chain across Canada and some in the U.S. eventually warned their customers to not eat beef that was purchased within a certain time period. By decentralizing the operations, consumers will not be as dependent on a handful of companies, and there is more likely to be better oversight and attention taken to food safety.
Secondly, consumers have a very strong influence on businesses through their spending power. All companies want to make money, period. Coventry University’s Brian Ilbery and Damian Maye point out that by purchasing as much perishable food as possible, such as meat and produce, sourced from independent, family-owned farms, you are sending the agribusinesses a clear message about where you want your food to come from.
My third proposition is to ask our politicians to finally implement a national food policy. With a comprehensive plan, Canada will increase local food production; develop links among consumers, processors, businesses, and public institutions; deal with the shortage of new independent farms; and work toward re-establishing Canada’s food safety system.
We need to look past the triggers that lead to food recalls such as the recent contaminated beef. To investigate the ultimate reasons, we should think more than just about the allegations of unsanitary working conditions, inadequate management, unreasonable employee workloads, and malfunctioning equipment.
It is time Canadians stand up for improved food safety. We need to rally together and demand changes to the overall food production and supply system by examining the various political, social, cultural, and economic factors that impact the processes. Only then can we rest assured that the food we buy is safe to eat.
Benson Wong is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in biology at the University of British Columbia.