Food-borne bacteria cause illness in 1 in 6 annually: T.O. health report

Every year, bacteria in food sicken about one in six people in Toronto, or about 437,000 individuals, according to report released Friday by the city's public health department.

Bacteria in food make about one in six people in Toronto sick every year, according to a report released Friday by the city's public health department.

Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health, presented the report, Food Safety in Toronto and Food-borne Illness in Toronto, to the city's board of health.

About 437,000 people develop a food-borne illness each year, which adds up $500 million in health-care costs and lost productivity, McKeown said.

Both McKeown's report and another report also released on Friday by Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, recommended expanding the provincial laboratory's capacity to rapidly identify bacterial strains — a task currently done at federal labs in Winnipeg and Ottawa.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the main federal agency responsible for food safety, but neither federal nor provincial inspection reports of slaughterhouses and food processing plants are routinely disclosed to the public, the report noted.

McKeown also recommended that:

  • The government of Ontario and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency "require full and timely disclosure of the food safety performance of all food premises they inspect, including premises inspected by local public health units."
  • All levels of government review their roles and responsibilities in handling outbreaks.
  • The CFIA review its recall policies and procedures to ensure foods are publicly recalled when "epidemiologic evidence provides reasonable and probable grounds to conclude that cases of food-borne illness are linked to consumption of the product."

Toronto Public Health investigates an average of 163 outbreaks of food-borne illness each year, including those in daycares and long-term care homes. Some infections are mild and are never reported.

Food safety hurdles

But mass production of foods in North America expands the potential for consumers to become sick from bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli and shigella, the report said.

As food moves through multiple jurisdictions, the ability to control, monitor and ensure the safety of food in Toronto has become more difficult.

Greater global travel also means that people are increasingly exposed to food-borne pathogens that were uncommon in Canada and may not be easily diagnosed and treated.

Although the trend toward eating more meals outside of the home causes greater exposure to food-borne illnesses, a consistent provincial strategy for educating consumers about food safety in the home is also needed, McKeown said.

An earlier provincial report estimated that about half of cases of intestinal illnesses may be linked to homes, but it was not specific to food-borne illnesses.

The report will be shared with federal and provincial officials, the CFIA, and Sheila Weatherill, who is leading a federal investigation into last summer's listeriosis outbreak that killed 21 people.

Weatherill's report is due in July.