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Keeping Canada’s food safe

As strawberry season quickly approaches, I’ve been subject to periods of reminiscing


April 17, 2008
By Marg Land


Topics

As strawberry season quickly
approaches, I’ve been subject to periods of reminiscing, remembering
back to strawberry seasons of my past.

As strawberry season quickly approaches, I’ve been subject to periods of reminiscing, remembering back to strawberry seasons of my past.

I was a lousy strawberry picker as a pre-teen. I recall the summer before my older sister left for college and the numerous farming jobs she took on to make money. I, too, seemed to be signed up to do all those same jobs since she was responsible for looking after me while my parents were at work. So, when strawberry season came, I found myself sitting in the middle of a wide, matted row, picking away. Admittedly, I wasn’t really doing much picking – but I was doing a lot of eating, and playing, and goofing around (hey, I was 11). By noon, it was apparent I was a liability to my sister’s future picking strawberries as I was busy ingesting most of the farmer’s profits. That evening, my parents were forced to find and employ a new sitter for the summer.

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Fast forward to present day. I’m still a lousy strawberry picker as I love to eat berries fresh from the vine (every pick-your-own operators worst nightmare). But other pickers are thinking twice before popping that ruby red fruit into their mouths out in the field, preferring instead to take them home and wash them first.

Food safety has become the public concern of the day. And it’s hard to fault the public for their scrutiny, given the numerous cases which have graced the headlines of Canada’s newspapers – the most recent involving a salmonella outbreak following a Mother’s Day brunch at Burlington, Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens.

While not all of these cases involve fresh fruit and vegetables (as of press time, a cause of the Mother’s Day salmonella outbreak had not been found), the horticulture industry still needs to be on its toes regarding food safety, especially in light of the fact most of the produce grown is eaten raw.

The industry has been diligent – the Canadian Horticultural Council, the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers and Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable growers (just to name a few) have developed on-farm food safety programs while the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food recently released its HACCP Advantage program aimed at helping both large and small non-federally registered food processors with food safety issues (see story on page 6).

And it seems that diligence has been paying off both north and south of the border. A recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown declines in foodborne infections due to common bacterial pathogens in 2004 (see story on page 13). According to the report, cases of E. coli O157 infections in the U.S. decreased 42 per cent while Campylobacter infections decreased 31 per cent, and Cryptosporidium dropped 40 per cent.

But the good work has to continue. According to a recent microbial survey of Ontario grown fruit and vegetables, of 1,183 samples surveyed between August and October 2004, two came back positive for salmonella. “However, the E. coli results (which indicate the potential for pathogen contamination) suggest that Ontario producers still must practice due diligence and continue to move forward with implementing food safety programs,” stated Lindsay Arthur, applied research coordinator of OMAF’s on-farm food safety program, in her report. “This is particularly true with commodities that are consumed fresh, are highly handled, grown close to the ground and have a high surface area, e.g. a leafy characteristic. These types of foods had a greater percentage of samples that tested positive for E. coli.”

So, while gains have been made, more work remains. Growers interested in formalizing a food safety plan on their operations are urged to contact their local grower organizations or provincial agriculture ministries for help. And those who already have imposed food safety protocols – keep up the good work.