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Taking Aim at Food Tampering

It’s something potato farmers in this country have never seen before — sewing needles intentionally stuck in potatoes that make it into fresh packs and onto processing lines in Prince Edward Island, posing not only a threat to consumers but threatening the reputation of the Island’s proud potato industry.

Our coverage of the potato tampering incidents in P.E.I. includes an overview of the case that first emerged in the headlines back in October, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency cautioned consumers about tampered-with potatoes harvested and packed at Linkletter Farms Ltd. in Summerside. More incidents have been reported since then involving a potato processor and another farm in P.E.I.

While few in number, these incidents have had serious economic consequences that include the destruction of hundreds of thousand of pounds of produce. The long-term economic impact to the province’s multi-million dollar potato industry remains to be seen. Understandably, potato producers are on edge — not just in P.E.I. but in other potato producing areas where many may be wondering, ‘If it can happen there, why not here?’

Amid the food tampering scare, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Canada has an outstanding record in terms of food safety. In fact, a recent report by the Conference Board of Canada ranks our nation’s food safety system as the best in the world, tied for first place with Ireland. And our food supply is getting even safer — the Safe Food for Canadians Act coming into force this year is aimed at improving overall food safety for consumers through a number of measures related to food imports, inspections and recalls, but also by reducing risks related to food tampering and hoaxes.

These measures would complement the numerous safeguards and efficient traceability systems already in place for protecting food for consumers. Safety related programs followed by operations within the Canadian potato industry include the CanadaGAP program of certified food safety policies and procedures. In addition, many farms and companies have developed their own internal quality assurance programs as additional prevention and safety assurance measures.

Heather Gale, the executive director of CanadaGAP, says what has happened in P.E.I. should be viewed more as a matter of “food defence” rather than food safety. She’s among those who view the potato tampering incidents as an isolated case and one that most growers, packers or growers will likely never have to deal with. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that CanadaGAP addresses food defence risks like product tampering by helping companies take steps to assess potential vulnerabilities within their operations.

Some potato companies already have hazard detection systems in place, like metal detectors on their production lines. In the months ahead, some others may be mulling over whether to invest in the kind of specialized equipment used to prevent product tampering. They may also be asking if they can afford the kind of sizable investment needed for something that, while substantially reducing risk, may not be 100 per cent foolproof.

Will growers, packers, processors and other sectors in the potato industry always be able to successfully defend against the kind of incidents that have happened in P.E.I.? Probably not. No food safety system can guarantee a completely risk-free environment. But by continuing to follow established food safety standards and guidelines while taking steps to stay vigilant and ward off future threats, the potato industry can reduce the threat.

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