Bacterial Foodborne Illness in Canada: The Problem
Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada estimate that every year between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from illnesses caused by foodborne bacteria. Controlling this problem is difficult because bacteria may survive food processing, or foods may become contaminated during preparation, cooking and storage. Techniques which will minimize the number of bacteria on food are to be employed at all levels of processing - from the farm to the grocery stores. Consumers also have an important role to play in practicing safe food handling techniques in the home.
Foodborne Illnesses and their Causes
The nature and extent of foodborne diseases are changing. With food being produced and processed at ever-increasing volumes, there is a greater chance of foodborne bacteria being spread to a large number of people. The food supply is now global, with many different countries supplying foods to Canada. Many bacteria, including Salmonella species, Campylobacter species and Yersinia enterocolitica, can reside in healthy food animals, without them showing any signs of illness. These animals can then spread the bacteria to other healthy animals at the farm level. During processing, the bacteria may cross-contaminate other foods being processed at the same location. Consumers should also be alert to the potential for cross-contamination in the home. For example, people have become ill after handling pig's ear pet treats which were host to several species of Salmonella. This problem could have been avoided if the pet owners had washed their hands after handling the treats and after playing with their pet.
In addition to traditional foodborne diseases, newly-emerged foodborne bacteria, such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes, have been identified worldwide. These bacteria are also appearing on foods where they had not previously caused problems. Some of the recent foodborne outbreaks have been traced to non-commercial custom-pressed un-pasteurized apple juice contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in 1996. The parasite Cyclospora was linked to imported berries during the spring months of 1996 to 1999, in 1996, alfalfa sprouts and in 2005 Mung beans sprouts were responsible for an outbreak of salmonellosis. In this last example, investigators found that the seeds themselves, which were imported into Canada for sprouting, were contaminated.
Everyone in the food system can make a contribution to controlling foodborne bacteria. For example, consumers can reduce the risk of bacterial illness by always washing their hands thoroughly, using separate cutting boards and utensils for meat, poultry, fish and produce, cooking foods to the appropriate temperature and refrigerating foods promptly. The Canadian food industry is continually committed to producing a safe food supply for consumers.
The Impact of Foodborne Illness
Although most individuals fully recover, foodborne illnesses can result in chronic health problems in 2 to 3 per cent of cases. Illnesses, such as chronic arthritis, and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) leading to kidney failure, have long-term consequences for the affected individual and for the economy and society as a whole. Health Canada also estimates that the annual cost related to these illnesses, and related deaths, is between 12 and 14 billion dollars.
The ongoing work of the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education will augment the food safety initiatives on the farm, at processing plants, in retail stores, in restaurants and in the home.