Tainted food takes tragic toll

In the fall of 1999, six-year-old Jesse Desbiens ate a hamburger for dinner at her family’s home in Quebec’s Saguenay region. A few days later, Jesse was dead. The ground beef had been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.In Canada, as many as 30 people die each year, and more than two million get sick from something they ate. Most people recover. But in a small number of cases, food-borne illness can result in longer-term health problems such as arthritis and kidney failure.

Health Canada estimates the cost to our society is more than $1 billion each year.

Many victims don’t even know what’s making them sick. Because of that, it’s hard to estimate the actual number of cases, or determine if there has been an increase.

But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says the nature and extent of food-borne illness is changing. Despite increased public awareness and prevention campaigns, infections from certain types of bacteria, for example E. coli, are on the rise.

Reasons for changes
Dr. Jean Kamanzi, a microbiology technical specialist with the CFIA, says there are several reasons for changes in the nature of food-bornellness:

  • Consumer eating habits have changed
  • Canadians dine out more than in years past. One contamination site can affect hundreds of people, rather than just one family.
  • People are living longer-older people have more susceptible immune systems.
  • Canada is importing more food.
  • Our fruits and vegetables are being handled more before they reach the plate, increasing the chances of cross-contamination.
  • Processing is more concentrated than in the past. The pooling of products at one plant can mean pooling the bacteria as well
  • Contamination on one farm can result in a continent-wide problem.

In June 2000, a meat processor in Alberta voluntarily recalled ground beef believed to have contained a dangerous form of E. coli. Fortunately, although the product was distributed throughout Canada and three U.S. states, no illnesses were reported.

Food pathogens have changed
But scientists and regulators must also contend with changes in the pathogens themselves.
For example:

  • 40 years ago, salmonella contamination was found mainly in chickens and the outside of eggs.
  • Now the bacteria can be found inside the egg-and also on fruits and vegetables.

Another of the most infamous microbes, E. coli O157:H7, was first identified in the early 1980s. In 1993, it killed four children and sickened hundreds in the U.S. who ate hamburgers at the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain.

Canada’s most tragic encounter with this bacterium occurred in Walkerton, Ontario, when the town’s water supply became contaminated and at least six died and nearly 2,000 became ill.

Canada had its first outbreak of cyclospora in 1996, imported into Ontario on contaminated berries.

Doug Powell, assistant professor of plant agriculture at Ontario’s University of Guelph, says these changing pathogens are not unexpected. “We’re talking about biological systems. Whatever food production and distribution system we come up with – whether it’s small family farms or industrial operations – there are going to be micro-organisms,” he says.

Setting up safety measures
The challenge then becomes finding ways to reduce the harm those micro-organisms can do. In 1998, a CFIA survey indicated that Canadians believe consumers and government alike should play a role in making sure our food is safe to eat.

The food industry also needs to shoulder some of the responsibility. To that end, many farmers and food processors are now implementing safety measures to protect themselves and the consumer.

In the last few years, the food industry in Canada has started using a system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). The HACCP system identifies where contamination may occur, either on a farm or in any aspect of food processing, so that those sources of contamination can be controlled or eliminated.

Also, a company called Toxin Alert is working on a new packaging film that would change colour when it detects certain microbes in the product so that consumers and industry can spot when some foods have gone “off”.

Many consumers believe it’s not enough. The parents of six-year old Jesse Desbiens say more thorough government inspections are needed to protect consumers. But Kamanzi argues that it’s technically impossible to inspect every piece of meat. And the CFIA’s president, Ron Doering, cautions that the front line of defence in food safety is the kitchen.

Food safety at home
When preparing and cooking food at home, one of the main things to be aware of is cross-contamination.

  • Keep all surfaces clean and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables
  • Clean cutting boards with a bleach solution after use
  • Cook all foods thoroughly, using a meat thermometer – just because a hamburger is browned through doesn’t mean it’s reached a temperature hot enough to kill E. coli.
  • Place foods in storage as soon as possible after cooking.
  • If meat or dairy products are out for more than two hours after cooking, throw them away.
  • Don’t depend on your nose and your eyes to determine if something has gone bad, as many bacteria have no discernible smell or appearance. And bacteria multiply quickly — some doubling in 20 minutes if left out at room temperature.