Food safety is not a static concept. Despite improved efforts to prevent food contamination from bacterial diseases such as Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli, these lurk every day on every food line in North America.
“Lots of food producers are paying attention to the mechanics of food safety and are compliant with food regulations,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor at University of Guelph’s Food Institute. “But there needs to be a culture change to manage emerging risks.”
In Charlebois’ opinion, growers are adhering to food safety practices as a cost of doing business, rather than viewing food safety as a prerequisite for improving all levels of management. He’s currently benchmarking a number of food companies in both the United States and Canada asking, among other questions, how much money is spent on food safety training. The results will be published early in 2016, but the preliminary finding is that not many resources are set aside to make food safety a priority for frontline workers.
“I think the United States has done a better job in connecting the dots in terms of understanding the interconnectivity of food safety knowledge,” Charlebois says. “For example, the country has a trifecta of physicians, laboratories and industry regulators who communicate food safety crises in real time.”
If a physician sends a specimen to a laboratory which then confirms a positive diagnosis of a bacterial infection, then an alert is sent to the Food and Drug Administration for a broader investigation. This network allows for regulators to be more interconnected and to safeguard public health.
The highly publicized outbreaks of food contamination in Canada have been meat-based, however fruit and vegetables are not immune. Safe Food Canada (SFC), a not-for-profit organization, held its official launch in late November 2015 to announce founding partnerships for modernizing food safety training and education among the value chain. Fruit and vegetable partners are missing in this list of founders: Maple Leaf Foods, the Canadian Meat Council, the U.S. Grocers Manufacturers Association Science & Education Foundation, the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science, and the World Bank’s Global Food Safety Partnership.
“Because of rapidly changing consumer demands and with the Safe Food for Canadians Act, both the Canadian food industry and regulators are now at a tipping point and must shift to more consistent, competency-based food safety training,” explained Brian Sterling, president and chief executive officer of SFC. “Our mandate is to modernize the design and development of food safety and food protection training; we must bring together food professionals from industry and government and help them do that.”
While Canada is cited as a global leader in food safety, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) sees a role for Safe Food Canada not only to enhance compliance with regulations, but to reduce duplicated efforts and training costs for all parties. Bruce Archibald, president of CFIA, readily agreed that electronic record-keeping is a priority to reduce the time spent on paperwork.
What’s in the future?
The goal is to standardize food safety training in such a way that all businesses, regardless of size, have employees with a common, comprehensive set of competencies. Currently, businesses and government regulators have a hodge-podge of employee training programs. This leads to duplication of effort and inconsistencies which increases costs.
“Right now, growers tell us there are too many audits,” says Sterling. “They are confused about what they’re being asked to do and why. It’s not surprising that growers say they’re in an adversarial position with regulators. Using that separate training approach is costly and we need to turn the culture of food safety into one that values protecting the nutritional value of the food product.”
Food laws are changing, both in the United States and Canada. Everyone along the food chain benefits when they’re on the same page. According to SFC’s Sterling, the goal is a food system in Canada with individuals trained to consistent standards with the same understanding and performance expectations.
“We need to move beyond the mindset that food safety is just rubber boots and a hairnet,” Sterling concludes.
Growers are adhering to food safety practices as a cost of doing business, rather than viewing food safety as a prerequisite for improving all levels of management.
~ Sylvain Charlebois
Several high-profile leaders kicked off the launch of Safe Food Canada, a new not-for-profit organization to focus on education and training. From left to right, they are: Michael Burrows, chief executive officer of Maple Lodge Farms; Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute; Ted Bilyea, chair of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute; Dr. Bruce Archibald, president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; Brian Sterling, president and chief executive officer of Safe Food Canada. Visit safefoodcanada.com for more details.Photo by Isabel Dopta, Food and Beverage Ontario.