Seal meat still safe to eat despite a dozen trichinella illnesses in Nunavik, say officials

Public health officials in Nunavik hope Inuit people still include seal meat in their diet despite the region's first reported cases of trichinellosis linked to the animal.

Officials say Illnesses first-ever in Nunavik caused by eating seal meat

A woman eats seal meat during a community event in Iqaluit in 2009. Seal meat is a staple of the Inuit diet. Public health officials in Nunavik are still encouraging people to eat the meat even though a dozen people became sick from the trichonella parasite in seal meat this winter. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Public health officials in Nunavik say a dozen people became sick with trichinellosis recently after eating seal meat, in what officials say are the first such cases in the region.

"We've never found anyone getting sick from seal meat before, ever, in Nunavik," ​said Elena Koneak-Labranche, assistant to the public health director in the region. 

Twelve people became sick in two different communities throughout January and February. One person was sent to hospital. They all had eaten seal meat. 

"We didn't really believe it, that seal meat would be the cause because we eat seal meat all the time," Koneak-Labranche, who is based in Kuujjuaq, Que., said. 

​Elena Koneak-Labranche, assistant to the public health director in Nunavik, says people getting trichinosis in the region from eating seal meat is unprecedented. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

She said walrus meat is regularly tested for the parasite because that is where it's usually found. Koneak-Labranche
noted that public health officials eventually tracked down cases in Alaska of bearded seals and ring seals which show they can also become infected with the parasite.

Officials encourage people to still eat seal meat

"I don't want people to be afraid of it, it's part of our culture, we eat this stuff all the time. Like I said, maybe it's just a fluke, it's a one-time thing," she said. 

We've never found anyone getting sick from seal meat before, ever, in Nunavik- Elena Koneak-Labranche

Koneak-Labranche said there are many reasons to continue eating the meat, a traditional mainstay of Inuit diet.

"It's good for the body. Good energy-giving, stops the anemia," she said. 

"We've been telling people if you're worried about it, cook it properly, but don't start changing your whole diet because of this."

Boiling meat will kill the parasite, but freezing it will not.

Koneak-Labranche says public health officals will be monitoring the situation. If people are worried, they can have their seal meat tested if they send in samples in the same way they do for walrus. 

About the Author

Catou MacKinnon

Reporter

Catou MacKinnon started working for CBC in New Brunswick as a reporter and then as the Martime Noon correspondent. Since 2004, she's been reporting on stories from all over the province of Quebec.