Canadian food inspectors find salmonella in more than 10 per cent of commercial animal feed they test despite a zero tolerance stance, a statistic that has food safety experts alarmed, a CBC News investigation has found.
"We've got to do something about the presence of salmonella in the animal feed," says Rick Holley, a food sciences professor at the University of Manitoba.
"It's just insane to think we are going to be able to prevent[outbreaks] from happening unless we do something about it."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) told CBC News it does not accept any amount of salmonella in animal feed, and takes any detection seriously.
However, the agency has confirmed that it finds salmonella in 13 per cent of the feed it routinely tests.
To confirm just how prevalent salmonella in feed is today, CBC News purchased 12 bags of animal feed from retailers around Winnipeg and asked Holley to test samples for salmonella.
Results showed two out of the 12 bags of feed, or about 17 per cent, contained salmonella.
There are, on average, 6,700 cases of salmonella-related illness in Canada each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. These cases result in about 800 hospitalizations and three to five deaths annually.
According to Holley, animals contaminated with salmonella produce contaminated manure, which farmers then spread on fields as fertilizer.
Earlier this month, the CFIA issued a warning about hazelnuts that may be contaminated with salmonella.
Link between animal feed, human food?
Holley said he believes salmonella in animal feed is one of the ways our meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts are becoming contaminated. Other researchers and a CFIA official seem to agree.
"Reducing the potential for animals to be infected with salmonella reduces the potential that those animals will shed the organism and, as a result, contaminate animal-derived foods," said Paul Mayers, the CFIA's vice-president of policy and programs.
However, Mayers also said the CFIA takes a "risk-based" approach after it detects salmonella.
"If you have the situation where you have [an animal] that's not susceptible to salmonella infection, and you have a very low-risk feed, then the corrective action that's employed may be different than in a [high-risk] situation," he said.
Mayers said among the most severe corrective actions include product destruction and mandatory CFIA-issued recalls.
He would not indicate what the least severe responses would be, but he said a "corrective action is always required."
Mayers also declined to give examples of when the CFIA has issued mandatory recalls for salmonella in animal feed.
But one Manitoba feed producer says the CFIA is only concerned with six of the more than 2,500 strains of salmonella, and it lets the feed enter the market normally if it doesn't detect one of those six strains.
When CBC News shared its testing results with the companies that manufacture the sampled feed, officials with those companies said they were not concerned and would not remove the products from shelves.
Melissa Dumont, director of technical services for the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada (ANAC), which represents feed manufacturers, would not comment directly on the CBC News test results.
However, she said salmonella is "everywhere in the environment…it's very hard to control, so there's a possibility that we can find salmonella in [animal] feed."
When asked about the link between salmonella in feed and human illness, Dumont said she's not convinced.
"I can only speak of the science that I've seen, and right now the link is not evident, if there at all, at this point in time," she said.
'I was ready to die'
Lynn McMullen, a professor of microbiology at the University of Alberta, said she was the victim of severe salmonella poisoning.
"I came home from California on a Sunday, and by about 7 o'clock Sunday night, my body was aching. By midnight I couldn't decide which end of my body should be over a toilet," she recalled.
McMullen said her doctor initially would not requisition a test for food poisoning, insisting that the problem would take care of itself.
McMullen pushed for the test, which came back positive for salmonella.
Because she was likely exposed while travelling, McMullen was not able to find out how she was infected.
McMullen said salmonella poisoning was one of the worst things she has ever gone through.
"I would never wish this on my worst enemy…I actually was at the point where I was ready to die, it was so bad," she said.
FDA changes import rules on salmonella
As late as in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, like the CFIA, enforced a zero-tolerance policy for salmonella in animal feed.
This led to an import alert against four Canadian canola processors in 2009 and 2010, after several shipments of canola meal — a byproduct of the canola oil industry and a popular ingredient in animal feed — tested positive for salmonella.
For more than a year, the FDA effectively shut the U.S.-Canadian border to canola meal from Bunge, Viterra, ADM and Cargill plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
Hundreds of shipments were stopped during this period.
But in late 2010 and early 2011, the import alert was lifted after stakeholders petitioned the FDA to relax the way the regulator deals with salmonella in feed.
Robert Broeska, president of the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association, says his group worked with the FDA and other American regulators to narrow the focus of their import restrictions.
As a result, only eight of more than 2,500 strains of salmonella are currently banned from animal feed entering the U.S. These eight strains were singled out for causing sickness in animals.
When asked if salmonella in canola meal could put people at risk, Broeska said he doesn't think humans consume canola meal directly.
"Canola meal is used for a protein ingredient in livestock feed. So it is really the concern of the feed industry as well as the crushing industry," he said.
Zero tolerance in Scandinavian nations
Some European countries take the threat of salmonella in the food chain much more seriously than Canada does.
Ola Magnus Loemo, a spokesperson for Norway's Ministry of Agriculture and Food, says Scandinavian countries "established strong national [salmonella] surveillance-regimes" in the mid-1990s and fought to implement tight controls on salmonella while negotiating European Union treaties.
Loemo said as a result, salmonella outbreaks are very rare in Norway, and "the majority of those cases [almost all] could be traced to contamination abroad."
Holley said he would like to see Canada take similar steps, and he sees cleaning up our act when it comes to feed as being part of that.
"We can't possibly hope to reduce the frequency to which these animals that we use as food shed salmonella with the hope that [our food] will not be contaminated unless we stop feeding [salmonella]
to our animals," he said.