'The more you test, the more you find': Food recalls a sign of success, experts say

VANCOUVER — A wide-ranging recall of hundreds of beef and veal products from restaurants, grocery stores and hotels due to possible E. coli contamination is the latest in a slew of high-profile food recalls in Canada.

Despite appearances, experts say a recent rise in major recalls is not a sign of food supply problems, but the result of a more active investigative body and better testing tools — though they add more can be done.

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"This is proof that the system is working well," said Lawrence Goodridge, a professor focusing on food safety at The University of Guelph, speaking about the recent meat recall.

Yet, he believes that "in Canada, we have to get to a place where we can actually stop the food from going to retail in the first place."

Since Sept. 20, a investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency into possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in some beef and veal products sold by Ryding-Regency Meat Packers Ltd. and St. Ann's Foods Inc. has led to the recall of nearly 700 products.

The CFIA suspended the Canadian food safety license for St. Ann's meat-processing plant, as well as Ryding-Regency's slaughter and processing plant, both in Toronto, in late September.

No illnesses have been reported in association with the products, according to the CFIA, but symptoms of sickness can include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhoea. Severe cases can be fatal.

This comes on the heels of several other large-scale recalls, including multiple romaine lettuce recalls due to E. coli concerns.

Part of the increase comes from new food safety rules, said Goodridge, pointing to the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations, which came into effect Jan. 15 this year. More requirements will be introduced throughout 2020 and 2021.

The new regulations outline "key food safety control principles that must be met by all food businesses," according to the CFIA, as well as how to keep a "preventative control plan that documents how food businesses meet food safety, humane treatment and consumer protection requirements," such as labelling and packaging.

It also requires food must be able to be traced along the supply chain from the consumer to the supplier and vice versa.

"I think what we're seeing is the (CFIA) really taking advantage of that new legislation, and really increasing their ability to really investigate the food producing companies," said Goodridge. He noted that St. Ann's and Ryding-Regency both had their licenses suspended for failing to implement parts of the new legislation, as did Calgary-based Fairview Bakery in late Sept.

He believes Canadians will continue to see more recalls as a result of the new rules, though he stresses Canadians shouldn't be concerned.

Additionally, the development of rapid-screening methods has boosted test times, said Keith Warriner, a professor in The University of Guelph's Food Science program.

"(It's) a bit like introducing fingerprinting into crime investigation," he said. "It's made that kind of revolution."

Retailers are also putting pressure on suppliers to test products, Warriner said. Once a recall occurs, they tend to produce a snowball effect by panicking and demanding products they sell be tested.

"The more you test, the more you find, the more recalls you have."

These factors have created an imbalance where the means of detection are much greater than the means of control, said Warriner, adding industry can bring in more preventative measures to address the problem at the source rather than trying to catch it later.

Some farmers in other countries have taken to vaccinating cattle on the feedlot against E. coli, for example, he said, which has shown to be effective throughout Europe.

There's some debate in the industry over how effective these types of vaccines can be, said Goodridge, who "absolutely" believes the development of pre-harvest prevention methods is key.

Some, including Goodridge, are working to figure out how to use bacterial phages — natural bacteria eaters found in the environment — to help decrease the risk of bacteria on animals for slaughter. Researchers are attempting to come up with a bacterial phage spray that could be administered to the cattle's hide shortly before slaughter.

However, problems persist as cows tend to be caked with manure, making it difficult for the spray to reach the hide's surface. And both professors say these solutions come with an added expenses for farmers or processors, who may be reluctant to invest and eat into their margins.

Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2019.

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