Beef tainted with E. coli bacteria and butter contaminated with salmonella were only two of the dangerous incidents that prompted food recalls in 2017 — but a new study says Canadians may still not be paying attention to what they eat despite the government’s warnings.
Researchers at Halifax’s Dalhousie University found that Canadians were consistently underestimating the cause of food contamination in their own homes and putting faith in a system that the lead researcher says isn’t properly communicating the danger posed by hazardous or even deadly food.
“There’s a bit of a paradox,” said Sylvain Charlebois, dean of Management at Dalhousie.
“Canadians seem to be satisfied and reassured by our food safety systems, but when it comes to the food recalls, there is something broken, particularly in relation to risk communication.”
Alina Dimitri, the executive director and deputy chief food safety officer for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) — the federal agency tasked with inspecting and warning citizens about contaminated food — says the department welcomes the results of the study.
“The study demonstrates to us … that Canadians are aware of recalls,” she said in an interview.
“What is even more important for us is that Canadians actually have the right reaction when they hear about recalls. They go into their homes and check what is in their cupboards.”
Dmitri explained that when Canadians know what to do, it means that their agency is successfully getting the message across.
WATCH: The Canadian government has a problem communicating risk of recalled food
According to the results of their cross-country and bilingual poll, 61 per cent of people say there were fewer than 50 food recalls in Canada during 2017. There were actually 155.
Charlebois told Global News that the results were disappointing but not unexpected.
“Risk communication hasn’t been a priority in Canada and our results show that,” he said.
Although Canada is a leader in how it monitors food safety at the source of production, Charlebois says, our country consistently trails others in Europe and Asia in how it communicates with its citizens. He used the CFIA’s website as an example.
“The CFIA’s website is not very practical and it doesn’t invite people to visit regularly,” he said. “Even the language being used isn’t very accessible.”
Other countries send out electronic newsletters, surveys and continually monitor whether the public trusts their work in food protection. Canada doesn’t.
Dmitri says that some of those 155 recalls would never have been flagged to the public, as the recalls sometimes apply only to food producers or retailers that have yet to distribute the product.
She says that her agency attempts to reach out to Canadians through social media, a direct email service and Facebook to communicate with them directly about the items that are being recalled, but says the agency is always open to finding new ways to communicate with citizens.
“If there is a new venue for us to share information on, then we’ll do it,” she said.
“But for now we are using all the different techniques that are out there.”
Charlebois says that Canadians in different regions respond differently to news of a food recall.
The study found that Ontario is the most concerned by food recalls, with 54 per cent of people saying a food recall makes them think there is an issue with the regulatory system meant to protect Canadians.
The Prairies were the least likely to be worried, with only 36 per cent of people said they feel concerned.
Charlebois says that the regional differences were some of the most interesting pieces of information gleaned from the survey, though researchers weren’t able to investigate it much further.
“I suspect it may be with how consumers in some areas assess risks or perceive risks,” he said. “We may talk more about food recalls in urban areas.”
Atlantic Canadians and respondents from Quebec also seemed particularly concerned after food recalls, with 49.4 per cent and 48.3 per cent, respectively, saying that they feel concerned after a food recall.
British Columbia ranked closer to the Prairies, with 39.3 per cent voicing concern.
WATCH: Canadians rely on media to monitor food safety
Reliance on traditional media
The study found Canadians are highly reliant on traditional news sources to receive warnings about tainted food, with 71 per cent saying they had heard about recalls from print, radio or television media in the past two years.
Only eight per cent of people said they had heard warnings from the CFIA itself.
Charlebois says it’s a clear indication that Canada needs to reconsider how it approaches communicating food recalls.
Although media are “likely saving lives” by broadcasting the recalls issued by the government, Charlebois says the nature of media means that relying on them to communicate every recall can be dangerous.
“No one can compete against Donald Trump, a plane crash or train crash,” he said.
“With all of that, recalls can get lost in the noise.”
Charlebois says that both the Canadian government and the Canadian consumer need to improve when it comes to food safety.
He says the government needs to implement a modern risk communication strategy, while consumers need to inform themselves of the dangers that food can bring to their homes.
WATCH: Why Canadians shouldn’t rely on media to tell them about food recalls
Consumer have to change too
A portion of the survey asked respondents if they had heard about four recalls that occurred in the last two years. While three of the recalls actually occurred, one of them was fake.
Only four per cent of people were able to correctly identify which incidents had occurred and which hadn’t.
Charlebois says that result was abysmal. He had estimated that the number would’ve been closer to 25 per cent.
Even if respondents were aware of recalls, the study found that 89 per cent of them believed the CFIA is the most responsible for ensuring food safety in Canada, rather than themselves.
Only 17 per cent of people put the onus on themselves, and Charlebois says that needs to change.
“Eighty-five per-cent of foodborne illnesses occur because of cross contamination in the home. People can get sick because of what happens in their own kitchen,” he said.
“People need to start taking responsibility. It’s not just about the CFIA, or the provinces or the municipalities. Consumers have a role to play in food safety.”
Dmitri says that the CFIA agrees, and that although the agency is “honoured” to be recognized by Canadians as having a role to play in food safety, she says consumers need to be more aware of their role.
“One of the things that I really like to point out is to remind consumers, and all Canadians, that they need to be aware of where their food comes from and how to properly handle it so that their food can be safe,” she said.
The study polled 1,049 people across Canada and has an estimated margin of error of 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.