Doug PowellCommentary from the Food Safety Network, Douglas Powell

If Canadian cattle or chickens get sick, the public is told all about it. If Canadian people get sick, not so much.

The silence surrounding salmonella in Hershey’s chocolate made in Smiths Falls, Ont., this month is just another episode in the arrogant and dysfunctional father-knows-best approach to providing health advice practiced by various Canadian authorities. Dr. Phil would say the relationship between officials at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Canadian public is like a couple headed for divorce: they don’t speak unless forced to, and when asked, it’s denial, deceit and deception.

The American-based Hershey Co. finally relented to media pressure and identified the mystery ingredient thought to contain salmonella (soy lecithin). At one point, a spokesthingy for CFIA said that since the contamination had been contained, and the tainted products recalled, there was no longer a public safety interest in divulging the source of the salmonella.

Poop happens — literally on the product, and metaphorically out of the mouths of bureaucrats.

Public health officials in Hamilton, Ont., tried the same tact earlier this week, saying that it was not necessary to notify the public of a foodborne illness outbreak — norovirus spread by an ill banquet hall food handler that sickened about 100 — because the situation was contained and deemed under control. Except when that many people get sick, word is going to get out, as it did. One local wrote, "I know of 45 people who became ill during this outbreak, including two who went to the hospital. … It would have been very helpful to all if the health department people had given immediate information on symptoms, how to deal with it and how to prevent it spreading. Putting that information out after all those originally infected have recovered is stupid, which pretty much sums up the health department, with the addition of arrogant and anachronistic."

I can imagine Dr. Phil asking in his Texas drawl "How’s that working out for ya?"
The public has a right to know.

On Sept. 14, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned the public about E. coli O157:H7 in spinach, which eventually sickened 200 — including one Canadian — and killed four. It took a slumberous CFIA a full day to issue similar advice to Canadians who, along with retailers, were waiting and concerned.

FDA did an excellent job communicating about the risk posed by spinach, including the emphasis that washing would do … nothing. CFIA continued to put the responsibility on consumers, stressing the need to wash fresh produce rather than tell farmers and processors to smarten up.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told Americans on Monday, Oct. 30 that salmonella — in what was eventually determined to be tomatoes — sickened 172 people in 18 states. At least two of the victims were Canadian.

The next day, CFIA issued a press release "to educate" Canadians on how to safely handle fresh produce. Except just like E. coli O157:H7 contaminated spinach, there is little consumers can do to control dangerous bugs on fresh produce; it has to be controlled on the farm.

It wasn’t until the following Saturday that CFIA finally acknowledged the tomato outbreak, and even then, stressed the solution was in consumers’ hands, not farmers’. Pointing fingers is a common tactic in a bad relationship, especially when one partner is in full denial mode: I did not; I don’t know what you’re talking about; it’s all your fault, you started it.

Research has established that an early release of information sets the pace for resolution of the problem, it may prevent similar situations elsewhere, and, most importantly, people are entitled to information that affects their lives.

The most frustrating part is that CFIA is staffed with individuals who are excellent public advocates and spokespeople. On issues relating to mad cow disease or avian influenza, CFIA goes out of its way to communicate with Canadians, perhaps fearing that any crisis of confidence will reduce sales and impact Canadian farms.

Yet when it comes to the 11 to 13 million foodborne illnesses in Canada each and every year, CFIA has adopted a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell.

It’s time for counseling. Maybe Dr. Phil can get the public and CFIA into a relationship based on open communication, trust, and respect.

But, like any counseling, it will only work if both parties are committed.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, 785-317-0560