Thursday, December 20, 2012

CBC spots salmonella tolerances for feed

The CBC has made a big splash about discovering the Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows tolerances for salmonella contamination of livestock and poultry feeds.

It’s reporting estimates that about 10 per cent of feed samples tested by the CFIA show some degree of salmonella bacteria contamination.

This is just the tip of a very big iceberg.

If the CBC digs further, it will find that the CFIA has secret tolerances for all kinds of defects and flaws, including some that put the public at risk of food poisoning.

In the case of salmonella in feed, the CBC interviewed Dr. Rick Holley of the University of Manitoba who said he thinks salmonella in livestock and poultry manure goes on fields and comes back into the human food supply on vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Of course, it could also be circulating from contaminated feed to animals and birds, then back to fields where more livestock and poultry feed is produced.

It seems to me that these risks will be higher for organically-produced crops because commercial fertilizers are banned, so there is a higher degree of dependence on manures for soil fertility, and because chemical sanitizers are banned from in-barn use.

But let’s take a look at just a few other CFIA tolerances.

For fertilizers, there’s been a generous tolerance based on total blended value. That means the fertilizer farmers are buying could be way out of specification for nitrogen, or for phosphorous, or for potash, just so long as the blended “value,” measured by price, is within the tolerance.

Even with that large degree of tolerance, the fertilizer industry’s track record has been abysmal; sometimes half of the retailers have flunked.

However, not to worry. Beginning April 1, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will stop enforcing any standard other than outright fraud cases brought to its attention by customers who file a complaint. 

With, of course, the necessary test results and other documentation.

Given the track record under the old system, those complaints are likely to be as rare as a frosty noonday in July, or hen’s teeth.

For eggs, it seems from examining CFIA inspection reports that up to five per cent is the tolerance level for Grade A. 

That includes eggs that are cracked, dirty or fail to fall within the size specifications.

And that’s the tolerance level that’s supposed to apply at random samples taken from point-of-sale retail shelves.

In practice, the CFIA applies the standard at grading stations which means that a lot of Grade A eggs in supermarkets may be worse than even this secret tolerance level allows.

Adding to the risks with eggs is another tolerance for the temperature of water for washing eggs. It’s critical to get it hot enough to kill harmful bacteria, but it’s often not. Again, the evidence is in the CFIA records.

I have stacks of them here in my office, ones I obtained by filing Access-to-Information requests.

And the really damaging details have been censored out. Why? I guess to protect those guilty of allowing flawed eggs to masquerate as Grade A.

But a few details escaped censorship, enough to establish that the CFIA inspectors cleared lots with five per cent or less cracks, dirts or size problems to be marketed as Grade A. More than that and they ordered the eggs "detained" for another round of grading to cull out enough bad ones to meet the tolerances.

Consider, now, the risks arising from a combination of wash water that’s not hot enough to kill harmful bacteria and eggs that are cracked so the bacteria can get inside.

Maybe that’s where some of the average of 6,700 cases per year of salmonella food poisonings arise. Those are Public Health of Canada records, and everybody in the food-safety and public health system knows reported cases are only a small fraction of the total number of people who suffer food poisoning.

So let’s take another case – apples.

You can go online to the CFIA website and learn that the tolerance level for “grade defects” is 10 per cent.

Add another five per cent for apples that are smaller than the minimum size required, plus five per cent for apples that are too large.

If the grade is Canada Extra Fancy, the tolerance is cut in half to five per cent in a lot of “fairly well formed” apples. Kind of subjective, that, eh?

Moving on to apples for processing, up to five per cent with “bitter pit” are tolerated for Canada No. 1 Peelers. It’s seven per cent for Canada No. 2 Peelers. And the same five and seven per cent tolerances apply for “other grade defects."

Are these tolerances a risk for food safety. I guess so, if you consider that up to two per cent of fresh apples with “decay” are to be tolerated.

I can understand that it’s difficult to achieve perfection.

I can understand that, for example, there are tolerances for dead insects in breakfast cereals and flour.

What I cannot understand, though, is how the CFIA can establish and apply secret tolerances.

Does the industry and the CFIA think Canadians wouldn’t care if they knew?

I don’t think so. I think they know consumers would raise a ruckus, and I think that’s why there’s been so much secrecy about the tolerances.

And so much censorship of inspection reports.