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A curious case of double standard

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There seems to be a double standard between lettuce and beef when it comes to reporting foodborne pathogens. An incident last summer seems outrageous considering the cavalier approach of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the lack of any reporting by the mainstream media. The fact that this may the first time you read about an E. coli 157 outbreak on leafy lettuce indicates how this issue has been ignored.

It gets worse — government documents only recently released state that an elderly Calgary woman died from the lettuce E.coli 157 outbreak last summer.

Clearly the lettuce outbreak was overshadowed by the XL Foods outbreak. City and national news media went ballistic over that with over-the-top coverage. It would seem that getting E. coli 157 from eating beef is just a lot more sexy and newsworthy than getting it from lettuce.

One ponders why authorities kept news of the E. coli lettuce death covered up for so long. It would be safe to assume that had this person died from eating contaminated beef the news would have been made public sooner and helped fan the media storm. Three got sick in Calgary and 23 in other parts of the country from the lettuce outbreak. It takes a lot fewer than those numbers for the media to go wild on a beef outbreak.

So what did the CFIA do when the lettuce outbreak occurred? It’s hard to determine. One would have expected that the CFIA would have closed the border to any more green leafy lettuce products from the California company involved in the outbreak. That’s what American border officials did to any meat products from XL Foods when they discovered E. coli 157 in a shipment. No the CFIA did not stop any further imports, which probably made the problem worse. What the CFIA relied upon was a voluntary recall of some of the suspect lettuce by the exporting company. That was it — no mass recall of all the company’s products across Canada. The CFIA took draconian action against XL Foods products, but not against the lettuce-importing company. Why the double standard — are the human consequences from E. coli 157 less severe from lettuce than from beef ?

One expects that there must be testing in place for lettuce and other produce. Well yes and no — there is testing for E. coli but it is not mandatory and seems to be applied on a random basis. What the CFIA relies on is the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement. It lays out sanitation standards and handling protocols to reduce foodborne pathogens. The problem is that it’s voluntary and administered by the industry itself. Imagine the howls of protest if such a loose arrangement existed in the meat-processing industry.

One could say that comparing the two situations is like comparing apples and oranges. That would be true except that the consequences for both are the same — people get sick from the same foodborne pathogen. On the one hand we have a robust compulsory testing and inspection system for meat products, but on the other we have a mediocre monitoring system with no compulsion for vegetable products. There should be no difference when human health is at stake. But apparently for our regulatory officials and mainstream media there is a difference. Think about that the next time you chow down on your favourite salad.

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