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One in six gets sick from food in Toronto

Sickening numbers in food safety study<br />

One in six Torontonians – 437,000 each year – is sickened by food
laced with bacteria, such as salmonella and listeria, according to a
groundbreaking study of food-borne illness in the city.

The results,
triggered by weaknesses in the country's food safety system, represent
about $500 million a year in health-care costs and lost productivity,
says a report from Toronto Public Health obtained by the Star.

"This
is a really important piece of work," said John Filion, chair of the
city's board of health. "Everyone knows how important air quality and
water quality are, but we don't often think about the quality of food
we put in our mouths."

Food-borne illnesses typically lead to
symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. The severity
ranges from feeling sick for a few days to hospitalization.

Health experts agree the vast majority of cases are never reported.

The
Toronto Public Health study is the first to estimate the number of
food-borne illnesses in the city, said Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's
medical officer of health.

In order to determine the scope of
the problem, public health staff used a formula devised by the Public
Health Agency of Canada, McKeown said.

"We looked at existing
research about the sources of under-reporting, how many get sick but
don't go to the doctors, how many don't result in a lab test being
done, how many don't find the bug the patient has, and you can go back
and calculate, estimating how many cases we're losing at each step."

Among
its recommendations, the report calls for the province to consider
compensating food handlers who are too sick to come to work due to
"gastrointestinal illness."

Between 20 per cent and 40 per cent
of food-borne illnesses in restaurants can be traced to sick food
handlers who transfer bacteria to diners through the food they prepare,
said McKeown.

"Food handlers, in many cases, have an incentive to
come to work when they're sick," he said. "If they don't, they won't
get paid and they may even be concerned about losing their jobs. I
think it's in the public interest for a food handler who is vomiting
with diarrhea not to be preparing food in a restaurant."

The
report also takes aim at the province and the federal Canadian Food
Inspection Agency, calling on the two regulators to provide "full and
timely disclosure of the food safety performance of all food premises
they inspect."

As it stands, provincial and federal inspection
reports on slaughterhouses and food processing plants are not publicly
available.

By comparison, the City of Toronto makes inspection
reports on local restaurants available online and posts inspection
results in the windows of all eateries – a groundbreaking disclosure
model it adopted in 2001 after a Star investigation into food safety problems in city restaurants.

"Transparency
has been introduced and has been a very good thing for food safety in
this city," said McKeown. "I don't see why the same benefit shouldn't
apply to food safety in other parts of the system."

Bob
Kingston, president of the agriculture union representing federal meat
inspectors, agrees greater transparency is needed at the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency.

"People have a right to know. We think (audit and inspection reports) should be up on the CFIA's website."

Spokespeople
for the CFIA and the Ontario Ministry of Health both said yesterday
they were reviewing the recommendations from Toronto Public Health.

Some
of the recommendations aimed at the province will be addressed in a
report to be released today by Ontario's associate chief medical
officer of health, Dr. David Williams, reviewing last summer's listeria
outbreak, said ministry spokesperson Andrew Morrison.

Tim
O'Connor, a spokesperson for the CFIA, said the federal agency will
look at all the recommendations "with a view to continuous improvement."

The
CFIA came under fire during the outbreak for allegedly waiting for the
results of time-consuming testing before warning the public.

By
contrast, U.S. officials dealing with a massive salmonella outbreak at
the same time quickly issued a series of public statements warning
consumers and physicians of a problem even before they knew the cause
or the source of the pathogen.

"There have been situations in
which local public health officials and provincial officials have felt
that the public should be informed earlier than the CFIA has been
willing to do," McKeown said.

The listeria outbreak, traced to
cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, caused 21 deaths
and 57 cases of food-borne illness across the country (15 deaths and 41
cases in Ontario). In Toronto, four people died.

The listeria
outbreak also revealed serious weaknesses in the province's capacity to
conduct laboratory testing for time-sensitive investigations, the
report says.

Because Toronto's provincial laboratory was
unequipped to handle the job during the outbreak, samples had to be
sent to Winnipeg, a process that added crucial days to the work of
officials racing to find the source of the contamination.

 
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