Veggie growers’ complacency could put safety at risk

Veggie growers’ complacency could put safety at risk

We went from a slew of alerts on romaine lettuce this fall to a series of clearcut recalls affecting various produce items — including romaine lettuce and cauliflower — when Canadian consumers were at their most vulnerable.

At this time of year, the Canadian economy is particularly vulnerable when safety issues arise in imported produce, since our supply channels are limited.

Chances are cauliflower will be very expensive as a result. And lettuce could be hard to get.

Unlike other such instances, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was able to execute a recall. This time, they have a company, a name, brands, lot numbers and products they can identify.

One farm appears to be responsible for this E. coli outbreak: California-based Adam Bros. Farming Inc., one of several large-scale producers of leafy greens in the state.

Many verticals appear to have been affected by the outbreak, including romaine lettuce, cauliflower, red leaf lettuce and even sandwiches containing products from the same farm.

Without knowing the actual cause of the contamination, authorities were able to pinpoint a specific culprit by simple deduction.

In 2006, in the aftermath of the deadly E. coli outbreak affecting spinach, Adam Bros., along with more than 115 other producers, signed the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

These signatories represent more than 98 per cent of all leafy green production in California. At least 276 consumer illnesses and three deaths have been attributed to tainted produce from these growers in 2006. Losses for the spinach industry were significant.

In Canada during the 2006 episode, it was next to impossible to buy spinach.

The industry went along with a rigour-charged voluntary system, vowing to never again go through something like the 2006 E. coli outbreak. The industry-led Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement garnered some impressive results — until now.

This time it’s lettuce.

Implications for the industry could be massive — losses could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. As it was with spinach, the entire industry will be affected, not just Adam Bros.

Lettuce is one of the big sellers, and that will affect the entire supply chain, from farm to retailer. At retail, some of these products have profit margins exceeding 50 per cent, so grocers aren’t at all pleased.

They’re having to issue many refunds, as well as deal with the fallout from the recall.

Protocols and regulations are already in place. Checkpoints, audits, inspections — everything was designed to increase compliance across the industry.

But in spite of this, some evidence points toward complacency. According to U.S. industry reports, while the number of unannounced audits remained stable at around 80 per year, the number of scheduled audits has been declining steadily since 2010.

They went from a peak of 589 in 2010 to less than 380 in 2017. That’s a 47 per cent drop in self-regulated audits, which the industry needs in order to keep things in check. This is a substantial shift.

Yet the industry report from the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement offers not a single explanation as to why the number of U.S. audits dropped.

The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement came out of the crisis affecting spinach. This latest recall is telling the industry that the will to implement more rigour has a short lifespan and needs to be resuscitated before another consumer dies.

Reports posted on the group’s website read more like self-congratulatory remarks than food safety concerns for the consumer.

After 12 years, perhaps it’s time for the industry to revisit some of the fundamental reasons the agreement was set up. This is about mitigating the risks that come with relying on global food supply chains. The very nature of these systems means one mistake will affect many. Rigour can’t be compromised.

But we also have issues in Canada. Products from Adam Bros. were being sold in at least six provinces. However, the Public Health Agency of Canada sent out alerts related to romaine lettuce covering only three provinces: Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. This went on for weeks.

From the start, most observers knew it was almost impossible that the outbreak could only affect three provinces. Many grocers were ahead of the Public Health Agency on this, pulling romaine from their shelves, even if the alert hadn’t included their province.

So over the holiday season, we can’t blame consumers for avoiding lettuce and cauliflower in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Turnips, anyone?

Sylvain Charlebois is scientific director of the Canadian Agrifood Foresight Institute and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

A firetruck sits in front of a home on Harvey Close in Red Deer Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Firefighters respond to Red Deer fire

Red Deer firefighters responded to a blaze in the north part of… Continue reading

(Courtesy photo)
Red Deer rental prices drop slightly

Renting an apartment in Red Deer became slightly cheaper last month. Rentals.ca… Continue reading

Rylee Trippel was last seen Friday. (Photo contributed by RCMP)
Red Deer RCMP looking for missing teen

Police are looking for a teen who was last seen in the… Continue reading

The Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Adopt a Family program raised $60,000 in 2020. (Photo courtesy Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Facebook)
Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Adopt a Family program raised $60K in 2020

The executive director of the Red Deer Outreach Centre says she is… Continue reading

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

RCMP say missing teen Hope Tivendale has been found. (File photo by Advocate staff)
No foul play suspected after burned body of homeless person found in North Vancouver

VANCOUVER — A burned body, believed to be of a homeless person,… Continue reading

The central zone experienced a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases Thursday, rising from 454 to 508 active cases over the past 24 hours, with 10 people in hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada has approved its rapid COVID-19 test

TORONTO — An Ottawa company says it’s received approval from Health Canada… Continue reading

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole defends decision to back, then oust, Sloan

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says he was once willing to… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault pauses as he speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Non-essential travel ban would violate Constitution but courts might allow it: expert

MONTREAL — Fear that Quebecers will catch a new variant of COVID-19… Continue reading

A woman walks outside the Roberta Place Long Term Care home in Barrie, Ont. on Monday, January 18, 2021. The devastating toll of COVID-19 on long-term care residents in Canada has underscored the need for increased public funding for home care, advocates say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
COVID-19 deaths in long-term care reveal need for home supports: advocates

VANCOUVER — The devastating toll of COVID-19 on long-term care residents in… Continue reading

A Chinese flag is illuminated by sunshine in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, September 22, 2016. China is threatening retaliation against Canada after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned a new security law giving Beijing more control over Hong Kong.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Diplomats contact Canadian held for over 2 years in China

BEIJING — Canadian officials have met online with former diplomat Michael Kovrig,… Continue reading

Marc Gold (centre) stands with senators André Pratte (left) and Peter Harder before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate on Parliament Hill, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Senator urges study of vexing barriers to using secret information in court cases

OTTAWA — A Senate committee should examine the hurdles that make it… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Winnipeg ticket holder wins Friday night’s $60 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — A ticket holder from Winnipeg won Friday night’s whopping $60… Continue reading

Most Read