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Food safety should be a priority

As basic needs go, there are few things as essential to us as the food we eat. In Canada, a developed nation blessed with abundance, we take food for granted. From plucking items off of supermarkets shelves to eating out at a variety of restaurants, we often don’t think twice about what we’re eating.

That’s changing, however, as Canadians become more health conscious. And a variety of scares – BSE, contaminated ingredients from China, listeriosis – have expedited that change. So, too, have reports such as the one this week from World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) that tells us we’re eating far too much salt, especially here in this country.

On the listeriosis front, investigator Sheila Weatherill’s report was released Tuesday, informing us that a number of oversights led to the death of 22 people following an outbreak of the food-borne disease in August 2008.

A six-month investigation into the causes resulted in this week’s report, which identifies four broad categories where improvements need to be made. Weatherhill called for: more focus on food safety among senior officials in both the public and private sectors; better preparedness for dealing with a serious food-borne illness with more advance planning for an emergency response; a greater sense of urgency if another food-borne emergency occurs; clearer communications with the Canadian public about listeriosis and other food-borne illnesses, especially at risk populations and health professionals.

The investigator found the government was slow to react to the outbreak. It would be nice to think this report will prompt the Conservatives to quickly implement measures to improve food safety. Those kinds of controls are necessary: we have to be able to trust that our food is free of contaminants that pose immediate threats.

The bigger picture, however, shows that our food does contain contaminants – herbicides, pesticides and a host of other chemicals – that must be monitored more aggressively. To date, government response to those health concerns has been underwhelming.

As the report from WASH shows, there’s an even more pervasive problem: the ingredients used in processed and prepared foods. Here, too, we see a variety of chemicals. In this case, the additive is salt, a useful compound that is overused in Western diets – apparently greatly so in Canada, where sodium chloride is added to foods in record amounts.

(WASH surveyed some 260 food products available around the world from food manufacturers such as KFC, McDonalds, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Burger King and Subway.  Not one product surveyed had the same salt content around the world and some displayed huge differences in salt content from one country to another, with Canada often leading the pack.

Kellogg’s All Bran, for instance, contains 2.15g of salt per 100g in Canada, but only 0.65g of salt per 100g just over the border in the United States, less than a third of the Canadian level.

And we thought breakfast cereal, especially the brands marketed to children, needed to be monitored for sugar.

The report is already drawing calls for government controls on potentially detrimental levels of salt, joining the ongoing battle against fat and sugar in processed foods. With the government already dragging its feet on labelling – particularly necessary for ingredients from suspect countries – we’re unlikely to see a response without some kind of crisis.

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