Friday, November 18, 2011
Red River recall highlights food safety measures
Aside from an unpleasant period of paranoia brought on by seeing the documentary Food Inc., I’ve never put much thought into food safety.
But when the food police come for my Red River cereal - well, that certainly gets my attention.
At first I thought there’d just been a run on Red River when I saw the empty shelf. But after several forays to different stores in an effort to find my breakfast of choice, I spotted the little recall notices.
It’s unsettling to learn that something you eat every day has been recalled. So I went looking for answers this week and discovered how little I knew about the whole complicated business of food safety in Canada, let alone the dense regulatory regime that aims to protect Canadians from harmful foods.
In the case of the Red River recall, it’s a labelling issue. Soy is in the cereal but isn’t declared on the label. Food allergies have become a major focus for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after national labelling laws were tightened in February, and soy is apparently a big one.
Companies have until August 2012 to comply with the new labelling rules, which will require a nice, clear caution in plain English warning buyers if a product has soy, coconut or any other of the 14 known allergens CFIA watches out for.
Smucker Foods of Canada - which makes Red River - opted to recall the Canadian supply of the cereal early while the labelling issue gets sorted out. My loss, but probably a good thing for any Red River fans with soy allergies.
Allergens are a common reason for food recalls. We’ve had almost 600 recalls to date this year, and many involved various allergens that turn up in our packaged foods without our knowledge.
Immerse yourself in the very detailed CFIA Web site and you’ll soon see just how many other worrying things can affect our food and drink, from ground-glass fragments to botulism, salmonella and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Fortunately, a third of this year’s recalls were rated Class 3, a relatively mild infraction that might just indicate a company hasn’t brought a certain practice up to code. (The Red River soy mixup is rated Class 1, because the potential for harm is significant for those with soy allergies.)
The even better news is that most food recalls in Canada are initiated by the companies that make the products. That’s a heartening indicator that they’re paying attention long before their products reach our tables. Most food recalls happen before anybody gets sick.
And that’s as it should be. We need to be able to trust that food manufacturers are doing their best not to harm us. No government body could ever stay on top of all the ingredients in all the food and drink we take in, and a complaints-based approach doesn’t work when a person could actually die in the process.
But I’d guess that trying to prevent people from having allergic reactions to food products will turn out to be one of the industry’s more challenging problems, and not just because more people seem to be developing such allergies.
Take soy, for instance. People who are allergic to it presumably know to check the ingredients list on the side of a product before buying packaged or processed foods.
But soy goes by many names, and soy-based emulsifiers and thickeners go by even more. Knowing whether soy is in the chewing gum, the tuna or the bread crumbs you’re about to buy isn’t always as simple as reading the label.
The CFIA has a section on its site encouraging consumer responsibility around food safety, mostly urging us to report to the agency with concerns about food-related problems.
But anyone worried about food allergies might also want to spend some time browsing the site just to get to know the many faces of their allergen when it comes to packaged foods. There’s a great recall search system that links you to all kinds of information - like the 13 Class 1 recalls that have been initiated in B.C. in the last month.
For all you Red River fans out there, I’d hoped to have word of a triumphant Canadian return (Note to cross-border shoppers: no recall in the U.S.) Alas, Smucker’s didn’t get back to me with that information, so we’re left to wonder.
In the meantime, visit inspection.gc.ca and see what your food supply is up to.