How Can You Be Sure Your Food is Safe?

By Lauren Benoit and Carmen Tang

Canadians adore food, and rightfully so — we’re the country that combined the most artery-clogging ingredients we could find and turned the resulting dish into a national treasure known as poutine. We pour maple syrup on snow and call it dessert (or breakfast, if you’re truly dedicated). Heck, we love peameal bacon so much the rest of the globe collectively named it after us.

When it comes to food, Canada has a lot to offer and so much to be proud of, including an incredibly safe, diverse, and affordable supply.

Plentiful offerings

As Canadians,  we are privileged to a lot of choice when it comes to what we eat. If you want fresh veggies on your poutine you can have it, if you want bacon on your poutine you can have it, if you want poutine made with organic potatoes and vegetarian gravy, yes, you can have that too. The choices we have are impressive and what’s equally impressive is that every single one of those choices is just as safe as the next. Our government has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of Canadian consumers, and that is something they are very good at.

As farmers we often speak about what we do on the farm, how we follow the strict, federally-regulated protocols that ensure that food leaving our farms is safe for Canadians. The farmer is involved with- and committed to- the production of safe food, but our food safety story doesn’t stop there. A lot happens between the farm gate and dinner plate, and through every step of the value chain the safety of Canadians remains the top priority.

Keeping Canadian food safe

The Canada Food and Drug Act, created by the government of Canada, dictates the laws and policies of food. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) enforces these laws and can be thought of as the watchdogs of food safety. The CFIA is also responsible for other parts of the food chains including: the living and transportation conditions of animals, protecting our country from foreign diseases/pests, verifying food import quality, honesty in food labelling, and the regulation of genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GMOs).

Your beloved golden, crispy fried French fries are likely fried with vegetable oil, particularly canola oil. Much of the canola grown in Canada has been genetically modified to include different traits, namely herbicide tolerance. Genetic modification, a type of biotechnology, is regulated by CFIA and Health Canada under the Food and Drugs Act. Genetically modified crops undergo rigorous safety testing before they even reach the farmers’ fields. The regulatory process involves thoroughly researching, testing and assessing the safety of the new GM foods. In Canada, these foods are referred to as ‘Plants with Novel Traits.’ Not all plants with novel traits are genetically modified, but all are subject to the same safety standards  Each trait and crop undergoes over 200 tests on everything from toxicology, molecular biology, and nutritional composition to ensure the genetically modified product is just as safe and nutritious as its non-GMO counterpart.

After the farm

After leaving the farm, many food ingredients travel to a processing facility. The bacon in your poutine is processed at a registered butcher or meat processing plant. Every federal meat or poultry processing facility is required to follow a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) protocol to food safety standards. HACCP is an internationally-accepted approach that requires processing facilities to identify all possible food safety hazards, design protocols to control hazards, a safety verification process and corrective actions. Potatoes, under fruit and vegetable regulations, also go through a regulated processing plant where the product is cleaned, sorted, portioned then packaged. The CFIA performs safety audits where critical points throughout the plant line are tested frequently for quality control.

If you want to be assured that your “vegetarian gravy” for your poutine is, in fact, meat-free, you can rest assured that regulations and inspection efforts are in place to ensure that product labels are factual, and not misleading (especially in the case of known allergens). In the rare event of a mislabeling, the product is immediately recalled, destroyed, and removed from the marketplace.

Product inspection extends to the non-federal registered sector, too, which includes alcoholic beverages, infant foods, and bakery products, as well as to foods imported to Canada. Products in the grocery store come from all around the world; Canadian food importers must hold an importers license. This license ensures food coming into the country meets the same standards as food produced in Canada by outlining the actions taken to keep their food safe and compliant with the CFIA’s rules.

The bottom line is that as you walk through a Canadian grocery store choosing the food that you will eat and feed your family, you can be assured that each product has passed through an internationally-renowned food safety regulatory system. Regardless of what you chose — organic, genetically-modified, all-natural, local, or conventional — the choice is yours, and all options are equally safe. From there, it’s up to you to make sure you’re storing, handling, and cooking your fine Canadian foods safely!

About the authors: Carmen is a fourth-year Food Science student at the University of Guelph and president of the Food Science Club. Lauren Benoit is a science and regulatory affairs analyst at CropLife Canada, and will be starting a MSc. degree at the University of Guelph in January, 2017.

An Open Letter and Invitation to Rachel Parent

By Lauren Benoit

Dear Rachel Parent,

My name is Lauren Benoit. I’m 21 years old and I have been following your story and your crusade against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for quite some time. You are a remarkably talented and accomplished young lady. I applaud your quest to provide people with more information about where their food comes from.

As both a farmer and someone who aspires to a career in science, I couldn’t agree more that the public deserves accurate reliable information about the products on grocery store shelves. Truthfully, the only place we disagree on is what actually qualifies as good information.

I am firmly in the pro-GMO camp. Biotechnology is a valuable tool for farmers that allows us to grow the abundance of safe and affordable food that we are privileged to here in Canada. The use of GM technology has several benefits, including reducing the need for tillage (which can cause soil erosion) and reducing the amount of fossil fuel burned on farm (and thus GHG emissions). More recent genetically-modified innovations, such as non-browning apples or bruise-resistant potatoes, are new options to help significantly reduce food waste.

The National Academy of Science recently released a report supporting the safety of GMO foods and cited no risk to the environment or humans — the future of science and biotechnology is bright.

Right now, you are choosing to continue your anti-GMO crusade despite overwhelming evidence that your information is flawed. I don’t know if this is because you distrust the more than 270 scientific bodies standing behind the safety of GMOs or because of the financial gain and social status that you gain from it. Either way, I feel for you. The empire that you have built on pseudoscience and fear seems to be crumbling.

For someone at the age where they are just beginning a career, I could understand if you’re afraid of what this means for you. Being 19 years old is hard enough as it is, and you have a lot of added weight on your shoulders right now. You started Kids Right to Know when you were 11 years old. You’ve spent 8 years — almost half your life — working on this cause, and as we continue to learn about GM technology, the facts are not in your favour. 

Even though we disagree on a topic very near to both our hearts, I do respect your drive and, if armed with accurate information, I think you have potential to become one of the great scientific communicators of our generation. I truly hope that you will listen to the science before it is too late and we see what could have become a wonderful career communicating science-based information disintegrate.

I would very much like to meet you and hear more of your story, if you’d be willing to meet — the coffee’s on me.

Yours truly,

Lauren Benoit

Lauren BenoitLauren Benoit is a 2016 BSc. (Agr) graduate from the University of Guelph who was raised on a grain farm just outside of Kirkton, ON. Lauren is currently working in crop protection research and has plans to begin an MSc. Degree in weed science at the University of Guelph in January 2017.