The food we eatHutchinson: Canada's food system at risk from terrorism

Published 14 December 2010

Fomer DHS undersecretary Asa Hutchinson says the Canadian food industry is not sufficiently protected from tampering and potential terrorism; the Canadian food industry points out that Canada’s food safety system is tied for fourth place with the United States, behind Denmark, Australia, and the United Kingdom

A U.S. security expert says the Canadian. food industry is not sufficiently protected from tampering and potential terrorism.

Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary at DHS, told a conference Thursday in Saskatoon that food supply chains need to be better protected — especially processing plants where toxic substances could be put into the food supply unnoticed.

Whenever you look at the producers, they’re widespread — they’re on farms all across the province,” he said. “Processing brings it all together. It’s the point of where some of the greatest damage could be done to the supply chain.”

Hutchinson said food processing plants need more inspectors. CBC News reports that his comments appear to run counter to a report earlier this year that compared Canada’s food safety system with other industrialized countries and placed it among the best in the world.

Canada tied for fourth place with the United States, behind Denmark, Australia, and the United Kingdom, according to the independent report prepared and paid for by the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, part of the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.

The ranking was based on factors such as the rate of food-borne illness, inspections, education programs, use of agricultural chemicals, and strategies on bioterrorism, risk management, and food recalls.

Canada ranked fifth in a similar study in 2008 — shortly before an outbreak of listeriosis caused 57 confirmed cases and 23 deaths, as tallied by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Food Safety Network, a research institute at the University of Guelph, notes that Canada has no recorded incidents of food terrorism. According to the FSN, the only case of large-scale food tampering in North America occurred in 1984 when 751 people became sick after members of a religious sect infected Oregon salad bars with salmonella.

Deliberate contamination of the food or water supply is “a real and current threat,” according to the World Health Organization. The FSN says the solution lies in finding critical points along the production chain where contamination is most likely to occur and taking steps to remove the threat.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the Food Emergency Response System, which identifies potential food emergencies (including intentional sabotage), performs risk assessments and removes threats.