The case of the contaminated cucumbers began on Friday, May 31, 1985. An 8:45 a.m. telephone call to the Vancouver office of the federal Health Protection Branch reported that two restaurant workers in the eastern suburb of Maple Ridge had experienced vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness after eating cucumber two days before. In the hours and days that followed, the branch received reports that more than 140 other people in British Columbia’s lower Fraser Valley had become ill after eating cucumbers. As a result of the reports, a powerful plainclothes law-enforcement agency that carries no guns and is not concerned with how ordinary people behave took action. The organization is concerned with what people eat, the cosmetics they wear and the medicine they take.
It is the field operations bureau of the Health Protection Branch.
Recall: The Vancouver inspectors found that in each case, the victims had eaten long English cucumbers and that those served by the restaurant in Maple Ridge had been supplied by D.
Meyer Greenhouses Ltd. in the same community.
However, the company also shipped the vegetables to 28 member-suppliers of a co-operative in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, and the inspectors notified the Health Protection Branch in Ottawa, which swiftly ordered a recall. By the following Monday, long English cucumbers were being pulled off supermarket shelves as far east as Winnipeg.
Laboratory tests later showed that the D. Meyer cucumbers contained traces of aldicarb, a pesticide restricted to use on potatoes and sugar beets. The company and the owner’s son, Peter Meyer Jr., were convicted on May 22, 1986, of violating the federal Food and Drugs Act. Meyer was sentenced to one month in jail, lost an appeal and was released on March 11, 1987. The firm also lost an appeal and was fined $5,000. The Meyer case, the first in Canada
to document a direct link between illness and agricultural chemical residue on food, illustrated the speed and power with which the Health Protection Branch can crack down on suspected abuses of the federal Food and Drugs Act. Usually, the dozen or so prosecutions each year are less dramatic: 90 field agents, supported by more than 90 analysts in laboratories in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, enforce the act by routinely examining thousands of medical devices, lipsticks, lotions and drugstore prescription records. But they spend most of their time combing through the nation’s food supply looking for bugs, dirt, bacteria, poisonous chemicals and excessive levels of chemical food addi-
tives—or unlawful ones.
In the 1985-1986 fiscal year the chemists, microbiologists and technologists in bureau laboratories examined 400 products picked up in spot checks of supermarket shelves, and 95 per cent conformed to the regulations. None of the remaining five per cent posed a health risk. John Riou, the bureau’s Ottawa-based director, said that breaches of the food-additive levels set by the bureau of chemical safety were not a major problem because “industry has a vested interest in complying; no one wants to have a product found in violation.” Said Riou: “While we encounter minor difficulties, it is rare that we find health-threatening problems.”
Abuses: The bureau chief of food inspection for Western Canada, Barry Morgan, said that in 24 years of federal service he could not recall an instance where a food manufacturer was prosecuted for additive abuses. For one thing, said Morgan, illegal additives would be difficult to obtain because so food industry suppliers stock only those that V are approved. For anI other, maximum levels I fixed by the bureau of z chemical safety are high s enough that exceeding them would provide no additional benefit for the manufacturer.
Imported foods and beverages pose different problems. Between December, 1985, and November, 1986, seven products were refused entry because they contained additives prohibited in Canada. On Aug. 29, 1986, 790 cases of Rubicon brand fruit drinks (Mango Crush, Caribbean Crush and Passionade Fruit Drink) from England were turned back because they contained quinoline yellow, a prohibited color, and the artificial sweetener saccharin, once permitted but now banned because it is linked to the cause of bladder cancer in laboratory animals. In the same period, the bureau also closed the door on fruit cordial from England, shredded betel nut from India
and preserved plums from Hong Kong, all of which contained saccharin. In September, 1986,
5,750 lb. of fresh frozen shrimp from Venezuela were barred because they contained the forbidden toxic additive borates.
Frogs: Although domestic food processors and manufacturers are seldom caught abusing the law governing food chemicals, their record elsewhere is more spotty. In May, 1986, Yorkton City Bakery Ltd. of Yorkton, Sask., was fined $2,500 for selling bread, buns and pastries that had been stored under unsanitary conditions. The bureau’s national enforcement report for September,
1986, listed a Montreal firm that had been ordered to recall frogs’ legs processed in Bangladesh after they were found to be contaminated by salmonella, a bacteria with the potential to cause food poisoning; Oshawa Foods of Toronto, directed to recall IGA strawberry jam after a glass fragment was found in a check of several jars; and several batches of Campbell’s cream of celery soup, singled out because of problems with the tins. But the most adventurous offender was Wilfred Eadie of Winnipeg, fined $1,414 and given a two-year suspended sentence for selling vegetable oil in bottles labelled “Beulah Oil” as a cure for arthritis.
Checks: Food-law infractions are detected not only by spot-checking shelf samples. Each year about 1,800 of the nation’s 4,500 food manufacturers receive unannounced visits from bureau inspectors, all of whom are specialists in food science, chemistry or microbiology. After arriving, an inspector tours an entire plant quickly to orient himself and identify areas that require detailed examination. Then he checks on basic sanitation, reads production records, asks to see lists of ingredients—even Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe is not exempt— and finds out what controls are being applied to ensure product safety.
In canning factories, cooking time and temperature are critical to bacterial control. At a soft-drink bottling plant, the inspection is likely to concentrate on the purity of the water
supply and how efficiently the company cleans up broken glass. At a flour mill, inspectors watch for insects, particularly flour beetles—or excessive quantities of the insecticides used to kill them. Said bureau chief John Riou: “Let me tell you, we would stay in a
plant for an awfully long time if we did not find evidence that there was adequate control.” The plant inspections also give the bureau an opportunity to monitor the varieties and levels of food additives. The western region’s Barry Morgan said that most of those checks are done visually, but that occasionally products are subjected to laboratory analysis, which is both complex and costly. For instance, to find out how much of the preservative benzoic acid has been used in a fruit drink, the drink is mixed with a solvent similar to kerosene. The benzoic acid, dissolved in the solvent, floats to the top. The fruit drink is drained away and what remains is evaporated. Because the dry residue probably contains food and flavor particles, a separation process removes the benzoic acid, which can then be measured. It takes about a day and a half to analyse just one product.
Most food additive policing is done during plant inspections, but there are other controls as well. Morgan said that bureau offices across the country are always involved in special projects that target specific products. Agents in the West this year conducted a special study of nitrites, preservatives used in processed meats. Two years ago agents in the region studied soft drinks. Now they are testing cheese.
Risk: The expense involved in monitoring the country’s food supply, said Riou, absorbs about three-fifths of the bureau’s $3.5-million-a-year operating budget. He conceded that 1,800 inspections annually among 4,500 manufacturers allow some companies to escape examination for up to several years, but because of limited manpower and money, the bureau concentrates on high-risk products and companies with poor compliance records. Said Riou: “I’m not suggesting we never get fooled.” The critics of food additives and the laws that govern their use say that whenever government does get fooled, it is the consumer who bears the risk.
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