Meat safety assured — but at a cost

OTTAWA - The federal government has issued nearly 90 food recalls and alerts so far this year - but only four involved meat contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria.
calendar icon 9 August 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

Many people think of tainted meat when they hear food poisoning horror stories. In reality, federal health officials say they're actually becoming more worried about the risks presented by contaminated fruits and vegetables. That's because while produce safety is a relatively new concept, any meat products that are sold in Canada are subject to tough checks and high levels of scrutiny before they're allowed on store shelves.

It's a system that was created out of necessity as a result of past food scares involving tainted meat and the mad cow crisis of 2003, which devastated Alberta's beef industry.

Canadians got a stark reminder of the destruction that can result from the slightest hint of problems with the meat supply this week after news of a new foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain.
Almost immediately, Canada shut its border to imports of British meat products and began the daunting task of determining if any potentially contaminated products had already made it into the country.

"Based on what we've been able to identify so far, we haven't identified anything that would be considered significant risk at all," said Dr. Debbie Barr, a veterinarian and national manager of import and export with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A new outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could spell major devastation for Britain's meat industry. But rather than economic catastrophe, this week's developments provide a significant indication of how far advanced meat safety systems have become since the last major outbreak in 2001, according to Dr. Chris Clark, professor of food animal medicine at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

"They were put under so much scrutiny at the time, that I think people are now more aware of issues that are related to animal health and public health. Therefore, the system has been put under more scrutiny," he said.

Countries that have faced crises involving meat, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have been forced to overhaul their safety systems in order to win consumer confidence and be permitted to export products. As a result, health officials have the tools to catch and mitigate many problems involving meat before they reach consumers. Now, meat that is imported into Canada and produced domestically may be safer than ever.

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