Canada's food safety rated among world's best
But ability to trace food-borne outbreaks faulted
A report comparing Canada's food safety system with other industrialized nations places the country among the best in the world at protecting the quality of the food supply.
Canada tied for fourth place with the United States, behind Denmark, Australia and the United Kingdom, according to the independent report prepared and paid for by the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, part of the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina.
The nation's food safety is ranked as superior based on factors such as the rate of food-borne illness, inspections, education programs, use of agricultural chemicals and strategies on bioterrorism, risk management and food recalls.
Canada previously ranked fifth in a similar study in 2008 — shortly before an outbreak of listeriosis caused 57 confirmed cases and 23 deaths, as tallied by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
That crisis led to the second report being issued three years ahead of schedule, said lead researcher Sylvain Charlebois.
Listeria lessons not acted on
He said the conditions that allowed the Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak to go unchecked and result in so much sickness and death remain a weak spot.
"We're dealing with public regulators that are having a hard time establishing a sound partnership between the private sector and government," Charlebois said in an interview with CBC News. "We saw that with the listeria crisis."
A report on the listeria outbreak prepared last year by former Capital Health (Edmonton) CEO Sheila Weatherill found that flawed communication channels among local, provincial, federal and industry officials contributed significantly to the seriousness of the outbreak.
"The Weatherill report reflected that dysfunctional relationship between departments and ministries. Whether it's at the provincial level or at the federal level, health authorities barely deal with food safety regulators," said Charlebois.
Charlebois believes Canada's food safety system could be the best in the world if a system were developed that could trace food from the farm to the fork, and include all the agencies and industry participants along the way.
But he said this would cost everyone — governments, industry and consumers — a little more money.
"You'll have to ask consumers to pay more for their food. Are they ready to do that right now? I'm not sure," Charlebois said. "There's no evidence right now that suggests that consumers are willing to pay more for their food for safety."