Richard A. Holley

According to the Conference Board of Canada (Munro et al., 2012), foodborne illness is a minor issue in Canada, largely caused by foodservice and poor behaviors in the home. While it is easy to agree with the latter two anecdotal observations, conclusions reached in the report are not based on unbiased or insightful interpretation of any recent robust data.

Four references to United States data were used to show that foodservice is the major setting where foodborne illness occurs in Canada. Perhaps Canadian data would not differ (no current data exist), but the origin of these data should have been stated more explicitly.

Close examination of these studies shows that none measured the proportion of illnesses caused by negligent employee behaviors versus food supply contamination. Two examples illustrate that contaminated food shipped from suppliers can cause illness outbreaks attributable to foodservice. In Germany last year, about 4,000 illnesses and 50 deaths resulted from consumption of fenugreek sprouts in restaurants. The E. coli O104:H4-contaminated seeds were supplied to restaurants by an organic grower in the Saxony region of the country (EFSA, 2011).

During the first nine months of 2010 in the U.S., about 1,940 people suffered salmonellosis from S. Enteritidis-contaminated eggs shipped from two DeCosterowned farms in Iowa to 26 restaurants in 10 states (FDA, 2010). Further, Jones and Angulo (2006) noted that evidence suggesting restaurants are an important source of foodborne illness must be interpreted with caution because illnesses acquired there are likely reported more often, being more easily identifiable (occurring in groups), and because people are more motivated to report illness from this setting than from the home.

The DeCoster outbreak in the U.S. (FDA 2010) could have been used to illustrate the need to prevent contaminated agricultural inputs (in this case feed) from compromising food safety efforts. Salmonella Enteritidis with the same DNA fingerprint (pulse type) was found in poultry feed, water, hens, eggs, and patients. The role that direct and indirect contamination by animals plays in contaminating produce also needs to be clarified, and the potential for this to happen reduced.

It is generally overlooked that in the previous outbreak and in two other recent multi-state U.S. outbreaks involving jalapeño/serrano peppers (CDC, 2008) and peanut butter (CDC, 2009), there were delays of three (peppers), four (peanut butter), and six (eggs) months between the first patient illness and discovery of the food responsible. The epidemiological records of these outbreaks suggest they had at least partially self-resolved before recalls were initiated. Indeed, in almost half of foodborne illness outbreaks, the food responsible is not confirmed, which implies there is likely greater potential benefit from enhanced forensic epidemiology than from a focus on recall/traceability. While that may be perceived as being counter to current mainstream thought, this can yield data leading to enhanced adoption of proactive food safety systems that protect business reputation and consumer health better than traceability. Expenditure to enhance food traceability may make good business sense to some (particularly for access to international markets), but can be only a cosmetic and temporary fix for a food safety system that intermittently performs to expectations.

Priority spending on traceability in Canada now is akin to installing a sunroof in a car with bald tires. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on prevention of failures in the food safety system and earlier identification of food vehicles responsible for causing illness.

As a policy option, the Munro et al. (2012) report offers no tangible, specific proactive solutions to reduce foodborne illnesses. Recommendations included improved foodservice and small–medium-sized enterprise (SME) food safety system use, enhanced traceability systems, and improved timelines for approval of new technology and products by Health Canada. These were noted in the report to be critical or key to reducing foodborne illness. Tackling them as priorities is likely to have a less enduring impact upon the safety of food in Canada than initiatives to systematically measure where risk to health and safety occurs in the food system and implementing suitable controls.

Real progress will depend upon acquiring better data on foodborne illness in Canada (foods, pathogens), acting in response with specific initiatives to address the problems identified, and then monitoring effectiveness of interventions. Overlooked in the discussion of technology to reduce foodborne illness is the use of irradiation to eliminate the risk of campylobacteriosis from poultry, the major cause of foodborne illness in Canada … we think.


Richard A. Holley, Ph.D., a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Food Science, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2 Canada ([email protected]).


CDC. 2008. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul infections associated with multiple raw produce items – United States 2008. Morb. Mortal. Week. Rep. 57(34): 929-934. Accessed March 2012.

CDC. 2009. Center for Disease Prevention and Control. Multi-state outbreak of Salmonella infections associated with peanut butter and peanut butter-containing products - US 2008-9.  Morb. Mortal. Week. Rep. 58(04): 85-90. Accessed March 2012.

CDC. 2011. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Multistate outbreak of listeriosis linked to whole cantaloupe from Jensen Farms Colorado. Accessed March 2012.

EFSA. 2011. European Food Safety Authority Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O104:H4 2011 outbreaks in Europe: taking stalk. EFSA J. 9(10): 2390. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2390.

FDA. 2010. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Inspections, compliance, enforcement, and criminal investigations; Quality Egg LLC 10/15/10. Accessed March 2012.

Jones, T.F., Angulo, F.J. 2006. Eating in restaurants: A risk factor for foodborne disease? Comm. Infect. Dis. 43: 1324-1328.

Munro, D., Le Vallée, J.-C., Stuckley, J. 2012. Improving food safety in Canada: Toward a more risk-responsive system. Conference Board of Canada report, 12-178 Ottawa, ON, 49 pp.

In This Article

  1. Food Safety and Defense