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Monday, 14 April 2014

Foodborne illness – CBC grossly overexaggerates restaurant related illness. How common is it really?

CBC’s Marketplace has been running pieces on foodborne illness as related to restaurants.  Central to their arguments are that there are 2 Million episodes of foodborne illness each year related to restaurants and lay claim that this number comes from Health Canada Marketplace reports on food safety .  The report then does a wonderful job then of analyzing restaurant inspection reports for five large Canadian cites.  A job well done.

PHAC reports that one in eight Canadians experience an episode of foodborne illness each year or about 4 Million cases.  Marketplace suggest that Health Canada reports 50% of episodes of foodborne illness are restaurant related.   In digging, this was not a number that was confirmable (any reader who can find the primary source please leave a comment).  There is a report by the other CBC (Conference Board of Canada) on food safety that references 50% of “where the source of contamination or the location of consumption is known”. Conference Board of Canada documents can be accessed from their website on registration. This references an article in the Journal of Food Protection which could not be accessed  but raises many questions. 

As such the CBC has initiated a myth and elevated the severity of the problem to a level much greater than it may actually be.

DrPHealth analyzed foodborne outbreak and restaurants noting that only about 0.01% of cases of foodborne illness are associated with defined outbreaks.  DrPHealth August 26 2013.   Hence there is a major disconnect between the CBC report of estimated number of restaurants associated illness and reported outbreak cases, even if assumed as 1%.   Remembering back to the Conference Board document on which the CBC has based its estimate of 2 Million, the 0.1-1% are the limited number of known sources of foodborne illness – suggesting closer to 40,000 cases that are restaurant associated illnesses per year.  The reality is this is not a clearly identified number. 

PHAC has produced some documents on the estimates of foodborne illness in Canada PHAC food safety. Of note, the major organism for food borne illness now being recognized as Norovirus causing two-thirds of foodborne illness.  Norovirus can be associated with contaminated fomites (serving spoons at buffet tables are a favourite examples). 

Notable also in this discussion was a revision of estimated foodborne illness estimates that previously had suggested one in three Canadians per year and have been reduced to one in eight.  Estimates of foodborne illness in Canada .  Previous exaggeration of the numbers contributes to the suspicion one should bring to the table regarding the current estimates of restaurant attributable illness.

In the wake of significant cuts to CFIA, reductions in Health Protection programs, and increased autonomy of environment health officers over food-related issues, there is an agenda that is unstated in respect to the credibility, accountability and role of public health inspection.

Not that any of us wishes to eat at a facility that does not adhere to the strictest of food safety guidelines and the Marketplace reporting identified innumerable hazards of concern in many large chains. 

Public Health has a duty to be objective and state the facts.  The Marketplace reporting sensationalizes a legitimate concern, but one where there is a large expenditure of dollars in the regulatory environment which might be questioned if the facts were presented without bias.  

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