Canadians Slow to Wake Up to the Dangers of High Risk Foods

Canadians Slow to WakeUp to the Dangers of High-Risk Foods
July 24, 2000
K-W Record
by Jim Romahn

Thepublic is beginning to realize that sprouts are a high risk food for foodpoisoning, but the U.S. seems to be much better at learning the lessons thanCanada.

Anacademic report by Sylvanus Thompson and Dr. Doug Powell of the University ofGuelph reveals that U.S. government officials took the initiative to organizepublic consultations with the sprouts industry and followed up with a set ofproduction guidelines and public warnings.

Nothinglike that happened in Canada.

Infact, judging by the press reports that Thompson and Powell gathered, somesenior officials at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada thinkthis is no big deal. They have limited their warnings to specific lots ofsprouts from particular companies and have indicated that normal, healthyCanadians face no particular risk and that it's only those with a compromisedimmune system who need to worry.

Tofurther muddy the waters, they have suggested that sprouts are no riskier than anumber of other foods, without listing any others, and that cooking will killthe harmful bacteria.

Thisresponse comes after more than 6,000 Japanese school children fell ill in 1996after eating contaminated white radish sprouts and after scores of outbreaks,each involving more than 100 consumers, have happened in the U.S. and Canada.

In theold days, the industry thought contamination could be avoided by carefullyfollowing proper production, handling, packaging and marketing procedures. Nowit's clear that contaminated seeds are a big problem, and no matter how carefulgrowers are about their facilities, there remains a high risk of contamination.

Researchershave found only one way to completely eliminate harmful bacteria on seeds: soakthem for 30 minutes in a solution with 2000 parts per million of calciumhypochlorite, then hit them with a dose of gamma irradiation. That's the onlyway to get at bacteria hiding in the tiny cracks in alfalfa seeds, or betweenthe cotyledons (halves) of mung bean seeds.

Troubleis, the irradiation dosage is higher than the U.S. and Canadian governments haveapproved for fruits and vegetables. And another trouble is the reaction fromsome Canadian growers who say they won't even try irradiated seed because theythink consumers will object.

YetThompson and Powell report that "even if only a few organisms survive(seed treatment), they can grow to high levels during sprouting and contaminatethe entire batch. Therefore, disinfection alone cannot be relied upon to ensurethe safety of sprouts."

Thewarm, moist growing conditions that are best for sprouts are also ideal formultiplying harmful bacteria, including the same strain of E. coli that felledthe people in Walkerton.

I taketwo disturbing lessons from the paper Thompson and Powell have produced. One isthat the Americans are doing a better job of addressing this food safety issuethan our Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada. The other is thatmany of our Canadian sprouts growers do not accept the fact that their productscan and do make some of their customers very, very sick.