Spate of recalls doesn't mean food is more risky: expert

Canadians have seen a spate of food recalls lately, thanks to possible Listeria and E. coli contamination. If it seems to you like these recalls are a dime a dozen these days, you're not imagining things, according to one food safety expert. But that may not be bad news.

Food safety expert says all food carries some risk, but better testing results in more recalls

A few of the food products that have been part of recent recalls. But one food safety expert says increased recalls aren't a sign that our food is becoming less safe. (Canadian Food Inspection Agency/CBC)

Canadians have seen a spate of food recalls lately, thanks to possible Listeria and E. coli contamination. The recalls have involved a range of foods, including granola and other grain products, frozen vegetables and salad greens.

If it seems to you like these recalls are a dime a dozen these days, you're not imagining things, says Martin Wiedmann.

He's a professor of food safety at Cornell University's food science department. And he says we really are seeing far more food recalls and outbreaks these days.

"But that doesn't mean our food is less safe," he noted.

"It's the opposite. What happened over the last 20 years and really accelerated over the last two years is the use of completely new DNA fingerprinting tools to detect disease outbreaks," he said.

"Today, we are 100 times more likely to detect an outbreak than we were 20 years ago."

Cornell University food safety expert Martin Wiedmann says we're seeing more food recalls thanks to better testing. (Jason Koski/Cornell University)
Health officials have developed a system to track the genetic makeup of salmonella, Listeria and E.coli. Once a food-related illness outbreak is identified, scientists can match the DNA from contaminated food with the bacteria making people sick, and potentially trace it to the originating food processing plant.

Is salad more 'risky' than raw milk?

A lot of the recalls we're seeing now seem to apply to foods that aren't traditionally associated with bacterial contamination, like granola.

But traditional wisdom, and modern public health rules, steer at-risk consumers (including children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with a weakened immune system) away from unpasteurized cheese. Pregnant women are told to avoid sushi. And hold off on pre-sliced deli meat, health officials say, because it might be tainted with Listeria.

In light of that long list of recalls, and the fact that we're detecting more outbreaks, shouldn't they also be steering us away from salad and cantaloupes? After all, based on the recalls, they might sound like risky foods.

Wiedmann says that's not really so. He points to the reason we see few cases of issues arising from raw milk consumption as an example of why.

"Much, much fewer people consume raw milk," he said.

"So we don't hear much about raw milk outbreaks. But we hear about outbreaks with lettuce, so [people think] lettuce must be less safe. Quite the opposite, because you need to consider the total amount of the food produced — what is your chance of getting sick from eating one of these servings."

Most recalls precautionary

Wiedmann also points out that a recall isn't the same as an outbreak. In most cases, food recalls are precautionary, and the products haven't actually made anyone sick.

We call them outbreaks now because we can easily link a specific product in California, for example, with a handful of sick people in separate provinces or states, thanks to the DNA fingerprinting Wiedmann mentioned.

The bottom line, he says, is that those high-risk products health officials advise against, like unpasteurized cheese, are actually riskier than the products making news headlines.

'No food is risk free'

He points out that all food is a little risky, and sometimes how willing we are to take a risk with something like cheese, for example, comes down to our cultural upbringing.

A cheese that's acceptable in the French countryside isn't in urban Canada, largely because of our cultural biases. 

"The challenge is that risk isn't binary," Wiedmann said.

"It's just not like 'risk' or 'no-risk.' There's a gradation... And then somewhere in the middle, someone puts a line," he said.

"And that line is arbitrary, because no food is risk free."

With files from the Associated Press


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.