GUELPH and OTTAWA, Ont.– According to the latest global report on food safety published by the Conference Board of Canada, in partnership with the University of Guelph’s Food Institute, Canada, along with the United States, is a top-tiered country in terms of the performance of its risk managers.
But the country can’t rest on its laurels, says an editorial by University of Guelph Professor Sylvain Charlebois and Jean-Charles Le Vallée, Conference Board of Canada, published by Troy Media.
Over the years, such major food-safety-related incidences as mad cow in 2003, listeria in 2008 and the XL Foods recall in 2012 have compelled us to rethink our practices. However, considering the future of global food safety systems, there is still much to learn.
Simply put, Canada’s ranking in the global survey is largely due to the consistency of the number of cases of food-borne illnesses and recalls that were reported. Alternatively, the survey indicates that other nations dealt with far worse situations. Canada’s new policy on allergen labelling, as well as an enhanced focus on transparency, also contributed to our high ranking.
The most fascinating data point found in the survey is Canadians’ overall perception of food safety. Public trust is way up – 67 per cent of citizens believe their food to be safer than it was five years ago. Aside from Ireland, whose citizens have a commensurate level of trust, there is nowhere else in the industrialized world where you can find a higher threshold of consumers who so trust their food. In other words, Canadians judge the risks to be lowest in the world.
In survey after survey, and in comparison to other countries, consumer confidence in our country remains strong. This should reassure domestic-based regulatory bodies, at least for now.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, data show that consumers in the United States and Australia are the world’s most skeptical about food safety. Barely 27 per cent of American and Australian consumers believe their food to be safer than it was five years ago. As a result, public authorities are walking on a much finer line than in Canada; this is a situation that often leads to the creation of problematic policies, since the emphasis is on managing fear, not factual risks.
After numerous recalls and international food safety crises, we have now entered the era of risk intelligence and accountability. Proactive behaviour, including learning from incidences outside our borders, is the new normal for all public food regulators, including Canada’s. Following Europe’s horsemeat scandal last year, they are focusing on taking learning outcomes from other countries to heart, which is why benchmarking our food safety performance with other nations is so critical.
Despite our regulator’s will to mitigate risks to the best of their abilities, given the scope of modern food systems, their capacity to do so will always be limited. The recalibration of the public sector around the world compels many countries to seek more effective, sustainable, affordable and long-term options in order to mitigate risks, such as greater self-reporting.
Without succumbing to a self-regulatory regime, industry should become more accountable to itself in order to better serve consumers. Traceability, which remains one of Canada’s most significant weaknesses, will need to improve to protect our supply chains’ integrity, thus preventing such issues as food fraud. Food integrity will likely be our most significant supply chain challenge.
With a rising consumer appetite for more information concerning the origins of their food, of production conditions and hidden ingredients due to a growing number of allergies and dietary intolerances, data in the future will need to flow freely from farm to fork. As Europe copes with the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, Canada should take note before some of its own consumers discover horsemeat in beef lasagna; or worse, in vegetarian lasagna.
Sylvain Charlebois is a professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute and Jean-Charles Le Vallée is a Senior Research Associate with the Centre for Food in Canada at the Conference Board of Canada.
Julia Kuzeljevich is Editor of Canadian Shipper. She has been writing about transportation and logistics issues since 1999. All posts by Julia Kuzeljevich