CBC MARKETPLACE: FOOD » FOODBORNE
Hard to swallow: Food poisoning on the rise
Broadcast: Sep 29, 1998
We've all heard about hamburger disease and we all know to
cook chicken well to avoid salmonella. But now hamburger disease
has been found in lettuce, and salmonella in cereal. There
have been serious food poisoning outbreaks caused by strawberries,
apple juice, cantaloupe, and alfalfa sprouts. And in early
1998, the processed cheese in JM Schneider Lunchmates infected
hundreds of Canadian children with salmonella.
It's a frightening trend. Health Canada statistics show that,
in 1981, the number of Canadians who fell ill with E. coli,
salmonella and a related disease called Camplobacter was 9,463.
By 1996, that figure had doubled to 18,750 for just those
But those numbers could be much higher. Just last week, the
Centers for Disease Control in the United States, using a
new, more detailed reporting system, estimated that eight
million Americans got food poisoning last year. Using a widely-accepted
statistical formula, that could mean the number of cases in
Canada is in the hundreds of thousands.
David Waltner Toews
"The numbers of foodborne diseases in Canada, as in other
countries, are vastly under-reported," says David Waltner
Toews, an agricultural research scientist in Guelph who specializes
in food and salmonella disease. "And for some reason
or other, Canada and Scotland appear to have the highest rates
of this disease in the world. It appears in the food chain
at this particular time in history for some reason, because
we have created the conditions under which this organism can
But what are those conditions? We live in an age that boasts
modern technology and high standards of sanitation, so why
this increase in foodborne illness?
Many experts point to what's happening on our farms. Today,
many farm animals spend their entire lives locked in tiny
pens or cages. In huge barns, tens of thousands of animals
are crowded together under heavy stress and in filthy conditions.
Many eat in the same cages where they defecate. These are
so-called "factory farms." They're geared to mass production,
but they can also breed disease.
Gail Eisnitz, of Montana, has spent years investigating the meat production
industry. She's done much of her work undercover, on behalf
of the Humane Farming Association.
"If people aren't going to be thinking too much about
the way animals are treated for the animals' sake," she says,
"then they sure as heck better be thinking about the way the
animals are treated for their own sake. Because animals raised
under these conditions become extremely susceptible to disease
spread, because their immune systems are so compromised."
Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency found that 45 percent of store-bought
chickens have Salmonella. What's more, salmonella-contamination
of chicken eggs is also on the rise. Few Canadians realize
just how potentially dangerous their eggs have become.
Nichols Fox is an expert on food disease. She lives in Bar
We have an epidemic here," she says. "Not just an epidemic,
but a pandemic. All over the world, eggs are now periodically
contaminated with salmonella."
Both the US and Canadian governments have issued warnings:
you should not eat eggs unless they're thoroughly cooked.
That rules out soft-boiled eggs, lightly-cooked eggs, eggs
over-easy, and any dressing made with raw eggs.
"That," Fox says, "makes each egg potentially like playing
Russian Roulette if you eat it undercooked. Now, to me, this
is a tragedy. It's a terrible thing, because it didn't need
Beef and pork
Chickens and their eggs aren't the only cause for concern.
The way cattle and hogs are handled, both before and after
slaughter, is also raising eyebrows.
Cattle eat their last meals before slaughter in feeding grounds
called "finishing lots." The animals walk around and rest
in their own muck and by the time they leave for the slaughterhouse,
they're often very dirty.
We spoke to one southern Alberta man who has worked as a
cattle hauler, trucking beef to slaughterhouses. To protect
his livelihood, he's asked Marketplace to conceal
"I have had manure in the bottom of my trailer a foot deep
at some times."
Alberta cattle hauler
"I have had manure in the bottom of my trailer a foot deep
at some times," he says, "basically all through the trailer.
It's just covered." And when cattle arrived at the slaughterhouse,
they would often be covered in manure "right up to their bellies."
That's routine in Canada, he says.
The U.S., however, has much tougher standards. Trucks heading
south of the border, he says, have to be "top-of-the-line
Here, "we get away with a lot of stuff."
Over the past 15 years, the facilities where livestock are
slaughtered and processed have changed dramatically. They're
bigger than ever, and they produce a lot of meat at very high
"As the line speed increases," Gail Eisnitz says, "it's more
and more difficult for the worker to do his job properly.
They can't necessarily cut the feces away that they should,
if it's on the carcass. Once you have feces on a product,
you know you're in trouble, because that's where contamination
One woman agrees. She's recently worked as a meat plant employee
in Alberta and says that, with fast line speeds, contamination
gets through. She's asked Marketplace to conceal
This woman worked as a meat plant employee and says that,
with fast line speeds, contamination gets through
On the line, she says, "there would be fresh manure and it
would all have to be cut off. Sometimes there might be lots
left, because you had probably 20 seconds to do two sides
of beef. So you had to be fast. And if you weren't fast enough,
if you had problems on one side of the beef, the second side
might not have got as clean."
To people suggesting that any contamination let through under
those circumstances is the employee's fault, the woman is
blunt: "Maybe they should slow their line down, so that we
could do our job properly. They're pushing too hard to get
this beef through."
The problem is bigger than line speed, however. Even when
a worker has enough time to cut feces off meat, bacteria can
remain. These invisible microbes can cross-contaminate and
multiply on almost anything. And when the contamination gets
through to the consumer, the consequences can be horrific.
This is because a new strain of E. coli has developed --
one that originates in animal manure. It's called E. coli
Eileen and Jim Mattson
Eileen and Jim Mattson almost lost their young daughter Holly
to E. coli 0157. It wasn't anything Holly ate that caused
her illness. As her father recalls, it was simply handling
a package of hamburger meat in a supermarket.
"Well," Jim Mattson says, "I remember being caught in the
crowd and looking up at her on the end of the cart, running
her finger along the seal on a package of ground beef and
licking it. And I remember chewing her out for it, just as
any parent would. 'Don't do that! You could get sick!'"
"It really happened so fast," Eileen recalls, "because first
for one day, it looked like stomach flu. And then a day later,
the diarrhea turned to blood. I think the worst moment for
me was when I came and saw that she couldn't move anymore,
that her kidneys had failed, and she could no longer sit up.
And I saw her trying to breathe, and she couldn't take those
breaths, and that was really scary to me."
E. coli 0157 attacked not only Holly's lungs and kidneys,
but her heart as well. She had five heart attacks, and required
two hours of continuous CPR.
"It was something of a miracle," says Dr. Gary Cornell, Holly's
cardiologist. "This case was really one of the most extraordinary
of my whole career. Holly was dying before our eyes and we
didn't know, really, if there was any possibility of saving
Holly beat the odds, but few children survive such advanced
attacks of what is now popularly called "hamburger disease."
Mary Heersink almost lost a child to E. coli 0157, too. In
the time since her son Damien's illness, she's become a leading
advocate for food safety and founded an influential lobby
group called STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority). Her message?
be wary of this microbe.
Mary Heersink almost lost a child to E. coli 0157
"This is a new variant strain," she says. "It is a strain
of E. coli which has picked up some very nasty habits. For
one, the toxins that it produces are some of the most dangerous
biological substances known to man. They are now a biohazard
level three in European laboratories. They are on the level
of rabies and anthrax.
"It's now become the leading cause of kidney failure in North
American children. It is killing, on average, in the United
States, one child a day. Up to 500 deaths a year."
Lines of defence
Dr. John Bradley is a veterinarian in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Until three years ago, he also worked as a senior meat inspector
in a number of packing plants. He's retired now, but he still
keeps in contact with his colleagues in the industry. And
he says that today's inspectors have little authority to correct
problems on the line.
Dr. John Bradley
"Nowadays," he says, "with the huge international companies,
they carry an awful lot more weight. And it's more difficult
for the inspector on the floor to make them comply, first
of all, with the regulations. And even if they do, to get
the government, in terms of supervisory upper management,
to support them in the action that they are taking at the
Dr. Robert Charlebois is a senior manager with the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency, an organization launched two years
ago to consolidate inspection under one roof. The agency reports
directly to the Minister of Agriculture.
Dr. Robert Charlebois
Charlebois says Canadians should feel confident that Ottawa
is doing its job. "We have, in Canada," he says, "one of the
safest meat inspection systems in the world."
He also says the way plants deal with problems on the line
is to slow down production. When told that Marketplace
had spoken with plant workers who say the lines don't slow
down, he declined specific comment.
"I wasn't there when you interviewed those persons but, really, that's what
we have as a program. What we're asking the people to do.
And we have people that are in the plants to verify that."
John Bradley isn't convinced. "In the old traditional way
on inspection, 34, 35, 40 animals an hour was quite a high
speed. Whereas now, there are over 300, and sometimes, in
the States, over 400 carcasses an hour going past any particular
point. And for a person to be able to catch anything on line
is getting to be virtually impossible."
Mary Heersink is even more blunt.
"This industry chants it like a mantra," she says. "'Safest meat supply in
the world, safest meat supply in the world.' It is absolutely
The Canadian Meat Council, which represents packing plants, didn't respond
to requests for an interview.
Meat packing plants do take steps to safeguard meat; one of the most effective,
steam pasteurization of carcasses, is supposed to kill 99.9
percent of bacteria. But pasteurization occurs in the middle
of the packing process, not at the end.
A study done by Health Canada in 1997 confirmed that recontamination occurs
after pasteurization. And some high bacterial counts were
found on finished cuts of meat.
It's not just meat. People can also get sick from eating contaminated fruits
and vegetables. Here's how that happens:
Pathogens like E. coli 0157 can survive for some time in animal manure. That
same manure can be used to fertilize crops. And studies have
shown that fecal contamination also leaches into irrigation
"We have had several outbreaks now in North America," says David Waltner Toews,
"related to fresh foods -- things like iceberg lettuce, things
like fresh strawberries -- where it's believed that the water
which was used to irrigate these crops was contaminated."
The consequences of fresh-food contamination can be just as horrible as those
associated with bad meat; a girl in Connecticut lost some
of her sight and sustained permanent brain damage after eating
lettuce contaminated with E. coli 0157.
The first step we should all take is, as Nichols Fox says, "to treat all meat
as if it were potentially contaminated, because it probably
is. This means we have to avoid cross-contaminating anything
in the kitchen. You should have two cutting boards: one that
you use for raw meats, one that you use for vegetables. Don't
confuse them. They should be washed thoroughly in hot, soapy
water after they're used, and allowed to air dry."
Those personal-safety measures aside, Fox says, a safer food
system is up to consumers. "In Scandinavia, when consumers
found out how contaminated their chickens were, they stopped
buying them. Consumption dropped at once by 40 per cent. The
industry responded, and now produces salmonella-free chicken
so you can buy that in a grocery store, clearly marked. It's
going to be our demands for safer food that's going to drive
government, that's going to drive producers to do a better
"In some countries, like the Netherlands," Toews concludes, "they have already
begun limiting the size of, for instance, hog operations.
So it is possible, in fact, to reverse some of these changes,
if the political will is there."