We didn’t have any tomato-related salmonella here in Canada (insert stupid joke about killer tomats here), but is that due to safer practices or is it just dumb luck? I’ll give you two guesses.
E. coli in the spinach, scary warnings about sprouts, the ever-?present threat that a cow has gone mad – like, how risky is our food anyway?
And who’s in charge of making sure we’re safe?
Well, the answer is everyone and no one. Wouldn’t you know it? Industry polices itself, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducts random tests.
Odd considering that produce comes from all over the world, often from places with standards much shoddier than ours.
And, boy, are there a lot of pathogens to choose from – salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, shigella, Toxoplasma gondii, paralytic shellfish poisoning. Critters you definitely don’t want in your tum.
What the experts say
“Even if the label says the produce is triple-washed, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. The FDA debated whether to tell consumers to wash bagged lettuce, but decided not to because there’s more risk of contamination in the kitchen. I don’t believe that. I think it’s good to wash produce. Washing with just water can reduce 90 per cent of surface bacteria. Market demand for bagged salad is growing almost as fast as for bottled water. Because fields are often near those used for animals, pathogens from their manure can leach into the water that irrigates crops. There is no evidence that organic production is any safer than conventional or that imported fruits and vegetables are more dangerous. Refrigeration is important. A lot of outbreaks are caused by produce being left at room temperature.”
KEITH WARRINER, food microbiologist, department of food science, University of Guelph
“The organisms are becoming more resistant to antibiotics. We’re finding them in places we didn’t expect, like apple juice and fermented products. We need better ways to trace the source of contaminated products. That’s been illustrated by the tomato outbreak; it’s taken a long time to identify the source, and even now it’s not fully known. With produce, washing doesn’t necessarily protect you from organisms that make you sick. There’s evidence that organisms can actually get inside the plant. Organically grown foods are just as likely to be contaminated as non-?organic.”
MANSEL GRIFFITHS, director, Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, Guelph
“If your immune system and gut are in optimal health, the chance of developing food poisoning is minimal. Make sure that leftovers in your fridge are kept in airtight containers, and don’t keep food for too long. Rice in the fridge will start to grow bacteria that cause food poisoning in about four days. The most common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting and gas. These cause you to lose water and electrolytes, so it’s important to drink plenty of water. Drink juice or a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. If symptoms are severe or last longer than 24 hours, seek help from a licensed medical practitioner.”
CRISTINA MEFFE, naturopath, Toronto
“Food poisoning is at an all-?time high, and the only explanation is the industrialization of food. We’re bringing in more from places where it’s cheap, like China. Organic producers, who get a premium for their products, are more careful because their reputation is on the line. If you’re a major company, you can poison people every few years and it’ll hardly cause a blip in your profits. If you’re an organic producer, one incident could be the end of your company. When organic growers did run into a problem with spinach, the reason was conventional feedlots and dairy farms nearby [polluting] irrigation water. The water used to wash the vegetables seemed to be the culprit.”
ROBERT CUMMINGS, national director, Organic Consumers Association, Finland, Minnesota
“There can be a long delay between ingestion and symptoms. And when the symptoms don’t arise until a few weeks later, it’s hard to put two and two together. Most of the time people have symptoms within a day or so. The main culprits are usually salmonella and campylobacter. Many different organisms, from viruses to parasites, can cause food poisoning, as can heavy metals. Generally speaking, our food is pretty safe here as long as it’s cooked properly.”
DAVID JUURLINK, head, division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto