I was prompted to write this letter in response to articles published in the Red Deer Advocate on April 1 (Meat inspection shortage putting consumers at risk) and April 2 (Canadian Food Inspection Agency defends food safety).
The first, from the agriculture union, intimated the possibility of consumer death from unsafe meat produced in uninspected meat processing facilities.
The second, a response from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), was more sensible in documenting the adequacy of current federal inspection practices. Researchers, the meat processing sector and the CFIA have collaborated to develop and evaluate meat processing protocols that utilize critical control points to insure the safety of meat products.
There is a minimum of inspection staff necessary to assure processes are in control and the addition of more inspectors would do nothing to improve the safety of meats.
I would argue that none of the incidents of meat-borne illness occurring in Canada over the last 10 years could have been prevented by increasing the number of inspectors on the processing lines in federally-inspected plants.
Despite the lack of evidence for a direct correlation between the actual number of inspectors and meat safety, when there is an outbreak of meat-associated illness the public panics and the government responds by infusing millions of dollars into recruiting additional inspectors. This, of course, is without effect and incidents of illness due to pathogens in meats continue to occur.
Irrespective of rigorous inspection procedures, by the time raw meats reach the consumer they are liberally contaminated with bacteria. Some of these bacteria are pathogenic (e.g. E. coli O157:H7) and could pose a risk to human health.
Armed with appropriate tools, knowledge and sufficient time, one could isolate pathogens from any raw meat processing facility. We know they are present but the more critical issue is their origin and fate during the meat production continuum.
Most importantly, how do those human pathogens grow to a level that produces illness when meat is consumed? This requires a basic understanding of the behaviour of bacterial pathogens in meat production systems from pasture to plate.
Further to this, one must consider the role of the consumer in the equation. Published data on origins of food-borne illness in Canada have well established that the major cause is mishandling during food service (i.e. restaurants, caterers) and in the home; usually due to improper heating and cooling, and cross contamination.
Thus, to be efficacious in preventing illness due to meat-borne bacteria, monies would be better targeted to improve training for food service employees and educating consumers.
The current practice of increasing the numbers of meat processing inspectors is not cost-effective and consumers must begin taking some responsibility.
Although one might think that consumer education is an impossible task, we can take an example from the poultry processing sector. It is well known that most chickens contain human pathogens (e.g. salmonella) and anyone with a modicum of intelligence takes appropriate measures to prevent cross contamination during food preparation and avoids eating undercooked poultry meat.
Many of these same people seem to have no problem eating raw or undercooked beef and when illness ensues, they readily blame the meat inspectorate.
G. Gordon Greer, PhD
Note: Greer was a research meat microbiologist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lacombe Research Centre from 1978 until his retirement in 2006.