Food safety: Are food-borne illnesses, recalls on the rise in Canada?

E.coli contamination in leafy greens, salmonella in meat, and listeria in ice cream. Dozens of recalls and bouts of illnesses stem from contaminated food -- but are cases on the rise?. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

E.coli contamination in leafy greens, salmonella in meat, and listeria in ice cream, hummus and even apples. Dozens of recalls and bouts of illnesses stem from contaminated food — but are cases on the rise?

It depends on the time of the year, experts say.  Right now, Canada is entering the height of recalls and food-borne illneses, according to Dr. Rick Holley, a food microbiologist at the University of Winnipeg. Cases of undeclared allergens and listeria make up the bulk of food that’s recalled and subsequently investigated.

“Outbreaks occur from now, around the end of May, through to the end of August in the greatest quantity. If we make pronouncements about the number of recalls in the winter and forecast for the rest of the year, it’s incorrect because the largest numbers always occur in the summer,” he told Global News.

What’s causing recalls?

Over the past few years, undeclared allergens made up about 40 per cent of all recalls due to unlisted ingredients or product mislabelling. Microbial contaminations – the cases of listeria, E. coli and salmonella, for example – make up another 30 per cent, says Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute.

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This year, from Jan. 1 to May 14, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued 155 recalls. In 2014, there were 714, followed by 467 in 2013 and 595 in 2012.

READ MORE: Navigating gaps in Canada’s food safety system

Similar to Charlebois’ numbers, the CFIA said that undeclared allergens was the most common reason why recalls were issued. In 2014, 448 were tied to undeclared ingredients. “Microbiological” concerns accounted for 178 recalls, while “extraneous material” triggered 35 recalls.

But rates of recalls, as a whole, are stable in Canada. A Conference Board of Canada report Charlebois helped to author compared the nation to 17 peers – Canada’s food safety system came out on top.

Over the past five years, recalls have been consistent at about 6.2 to 8.7 recalls per 100,000 people. The variation is about 2.7 per cent compared to, say, France’s 39 per cent disparity from year-to-year, Charlebois said.

READ MORE: UBC researchers find antibiotic-resistant E. coli on local produce

“For France, you never know what’s going to happen. In Canada, it seems as though we’ve actually matured when it comes to food recalls and illnesses so we can better predict recalls,” Charlebois said.

WATCH: In an increasingly complex food system, are inspectors able to keep up? And are food recalls a sign of a broken system or a system working well? Allison Vuchnich reports.

Who gets sick and what’s sparking illness?

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Listeria is on the rise: Holley said there’s been five times more food recalls tied to listeria this year than in 2014, based on crunching CFIA data. Most of the time is was stemming from animal products, such as cooked meat and fish.

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While E.coli in food products is declining, it’s made its way into animals – it was, for the first time, seen in pork in Alberta late last year, Holley said.

Tracking who gets sick and investigating the culprit isn’t easy work. Global News asked the Public Health Agency of Canada for national numbers of how many people fall ill from contaminated food. It’s too hard to provide an accurate snapshot, the agency said.

READ MORE: ‘I thought I was going to die’: Years later the lingering impact of listeriosis

“The frustrating thing is in only about half of the outbreaks do we actually know what the cause was and that’s unfortunate,” Holley said.

If illnesses were only in one province or jurisdiction, they wouldn’t make their way onto the federal department’s radar. Not everyone who falls ill from recalled food reports their sickness either.

Ontario data, obtained exclusively by Global News under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests that there are thousands of food-borne illnesses in the province each year but that rates are stagnant.

There were 60 reported cases of listeriosis in 2010, for example. By 2014, the number was 52. For salmonella, confirmed infections ranged from 2,725 in 2010 to 3,039 by 2014.

Determining the culprit behind a string of illnesses with the same genetic fingerprint is the challenge.

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READ MORE: Nails in potatoes prompts recall in Atlantic Canada

Ultimately, there are at least 60 to 70 causes of recalls. Training of employees could be lacking, handling of livestock when they arrive at slaughterhouses, faulty equipment, packaging defaults, and tampered products are just part of the laundry list of things that could go wrong in the production and distribution of the food that ends up in our kitchens.

The CFIA says it traces food products “backwards through the distribution and production systems” in trying to determine where the problem occurred and what food products could be implicated.

Distribution and product information is collected and analyzed to help investigators piece together where the food was sold and when it expired. Food samples are tested in the lab.

READ MORE: A look at listeria, pathogen found in ice cream and hummus

“Once potentially harmful food is traced back to a production or processing facility or to an importer, CFIA inspectors immediately visit the site to inspect processing or production practices, equipment, conditions and production and distribution records,” the CFIA said in a statement to Global News.

“Despite all these activities, there are food safety investigations that do not result in confirming a specific food source,” the agency said.

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This year, the CFIA issued a warning that a rash of E.coli infections across the country could be linked to leafy green vegetables. It’s unclear what specific produce was contaminated, though.

READ MORE: Health officials suspect E. coli illnesses linked to leafy greens

“Leafy greens can include all varieties of lettuces and other green leaf vegetables such as kale, spinach, arugula or chard,” the federal agency said in its advisory.

Charlebois said this instance is concerning, noting that it took almost a week to find the origins of the cattle infected with mad cow disease last February in Alberta.

READ MORE: Two cows with BSE born on same Alberta farm, says CFIA

“Our food traceability capacity is not on par with world standards I’m afraid,” he said.

“These are troubling facts for not only consumers but for industry as a whole.”

How can the system improve?

But the CFIA says it’s working on strengthening the system by zeroing in on key features in international food safety systems.

“The proposed approach would shift from a responsive system (dealing with issues at point of sale/recall) to a proactive system where preventive controls are in place early in the production process. Fewer recalls would be expected as a result,” the statement said.

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Recalls also need work: right now, the CFIA issues recalls on its website, while the media spreads the message.  In Holley’s research on major outbreaks, including E.coli contamination that led to upwards of 4,000 falling ill in Germany, recalls did little to stop the spread.

“The outbreak is almost over, it resolves itself by the time the implicated food is identified and that’s a really sad tale. It’s wrong to think recalls will protect us,” he said.

“The CFIA needs to find a way to communicate risk in real time and engage the public,” Charlebois said.

READ MORE: Canada’s protocols for dealing with mad cow disease are effective, say beef industry officials

But recalls are also doled out as a precautionary measure, which may be why consumers see them with more frequency.

“Many of these recalls are due to companies trying to be careful. It’s a pre-emptive measure instead of waiting for people to get sick,” Charlebois said.

Charlebois noted that Canada has made great strides in food safety. Before the listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods in 2008, cases of contamination in the food supply weren’t even tracked. Now it’s monitored rigorously.

“We will continue to see recalls but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They allow our food safety systems to get better,” he said.

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