A survey by Dalhousie University researchers found many respondents underestimated the number of food recalls that had been issued. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Despite their concern, Canadians lack knowledge of food recalls, study shows

MONTREAL — While Canadians are overwhelmingly concerned about food contamination and bacteria, many don’t feel they’re personally responsible for keeping themselves safe, according to new research by Dalhousie University.

In a recent survey, researchers at the Nova Scotia-based institution found that few of the respondents could accurately remember some recent food recalls, while many underestimated the number of recalls that had been issued.

Equally worrying, only about 18 per cent felt consumers were among the groups most responsible for food safety — even though up to 80 per cent of contamination happens due to improper handling and preparation in consumers’ own kitchens, according to the professor who led the survey.

More than 83 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “food contamination primarily occurs before food reaches my home.”

“It’s actually quite troubling,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie.

“(It) means that most consumers don’t feel responsible, while the majority of food-borne illnesses are due to cross-contamination at home.”

The study, which surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian adults in March, was designed with the goal of better understanding how Canadians react to food recalls.

One series of questions asked respondents if they had knowledge of four recent recalls — three that had actually occurred and one that hadn’t.

While more than 40 per cent were aware of a frozen fruit and vegetable callback in May 2016, fewer remembered more recent recalls on hummus and flour and some 8.8 per cent answered affirmatively when asked if they remembered a potato recall, even though none was ever issued.

“We didn’t realize how confused Canadians were around food recalls,” Charlebois said in a phone interview.

“We didn’t expect so many people to not be able to distinguish what was the fictional recall versus the ones that did occur.”

Respondents also underestimated the number of food recalls that took place in 2017, with more than 60 per cent estimating there were fewer than 50.

In reality, there were 155.

Despite these numbers, the survey found the overwhelming majority of respondents were concerned with food safety to some degree, and more than half said their concern had increased in the last five years.

Charlebois attributes that change to an aging population that is more concerned about health matters, and a desire among Canadians to learn more about food.

To help them, he believes the country’s food inspection agency needs to do more to educate Canadians about the recall process and the risks of unsafe food handling.

That could include using more accessible language on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s website, making it easier to search past recalls and “closing the loop” of information that circulates around recalls.

“The (agency) will issue a recall, will send out an alert…but they don’t necessarily follow through and tell Canadians when it’s safe to eat that product again, or what measures were taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” he explained.

“There is very little transparency around the actual process of a food recall.”

The survey found that higher-income earners and those living in the Atlantic provinces were most aware of recall issues, while those under the age of 21 were least aware.

Questions about confidence in the regulatory system drew mixed results.

More than 70 per cent of respondents said food recalls made them feel more confident, seeing them as a sign the regulatory system is working.

But at the same time, just under half said recalls made them worried because it meant the system was failing.

The poll is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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