Issue 223: August 2004

 Safe Food?


“Canada has the safest food supply in the world.”
– any Government or industry spokesperson or publication
you care to mention

As a break from digging in the garden, we have been digging around to find Canada’s public food policy. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to find one.

Despite the (underfunded) Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and some excellent advocacy work by some local health authorities and community nutritionists, particularly in Ontario and BC, Health Canada does not insist on good food as basic health care. Agricultural
policy, insofar as there is any, is focussed on commodity production as raw material for processing and export, not on viable diversified farms feeding local populations.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has a food policy, but again, its emphasis is not on a healthy agriculture producing nutritious food for Canadians, but on safe food.

But what is safe food?

One clue might be found in the ritual of Hallowe’en: going around the neighbourhood dressed as some (preferably scary) monster or character created with the help of your mother, knocking on doors and saying “trick or treat”? Of course the neighbours were not supposed to recognize you and would try to guess who you were while doling out an apple, a homemade cookie or two, or even
some homemade fudge.

Then “safety” reared its ugly head, and the virus of mistrust was turned loose.


It was not long before the apples disappeared, along with the cookies and fudge, to be replaced with store-bought specially packaged ‘Halloween treats’: miniature candy bars, separately and sanitarily wrapped candies and cookies. No more fresh goods of any kind. Of course, this meant that all this junk had to be purchased at a much higher cost than was incurred with home preparation. Curiously, the same transition took place with the costumes. No more homemade dragons and witches. Now the masks and plastic get-up is purchased
along with the ‘treats’ – and probably ‘made in China’. (Though we have to admit that a George Bush mask is truly scary.)


The excuse for turning the event into another marketing opportunity was that there were malicious people out there who were bent on poisoning children or harming them by putting razor blades in the apples. A few such events were very widely publicized – and nobody wants to put children at risk. But we still can’t bring ourselves to believe that the lady on the corner who steadfastly made and gave out the most fabulous fudge year after year would suddenly start sticking needles into it.

People get worried about safety when trust begins to erode.

As the example of Hallowe’en shows, this loss of trust has been, at least in part, a consequence of no longer having neighbours, even if there are people living ‘next door.’ Neighbours are people you know, whose families you know, whose habits are familiar, and whom you see around ‘the neighbourhood.’ But what is ‘the neighbourhood’ now? How often do we even see the people ‘next door?’

It’s not just the loss of neighbours, however, but the transformation of neighbours into competitors and the nurturing of a culture of greed by the capitalist market economy where it is supposed to be every person for themselves.

Then there is the question of where our food comes from. Do we even know, other than that it comes from the supermarket? Chances are we don’t know who grew it or where, so trust is difficult. Nor do we know through whose hands it has passed, and what they might have on their mind, so the mistrust grows and spreads like a virus.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the transformation of Hallowe’en occurred along with the disappearance of the locally owned neighbourhood grocery store and its replacement by the anonymously-owned supermarket. The proprietors of the old grocery store got most of what they sold locally, be it meat or produce, and knew where it came from. They also knew their customers and might well extend credit when need be. The superstore displays idealized pictures of farmers but doesn’t buy from them; and it extends credit via credit card at 18% interest.

Clearly, food safety is not the issue, but rather a means of diverting public attention from the real issue: working and eating for corporate profit rather than for good health and a thriving neighbourhood, town or community.

Fortunately, not everyone is following the ‘lead’ of North America. Europe, it seems, retains some ‘old world’ values and customs. Peter Greenberg, managing director of Rabobank Canada (Holland-based Rabobank is one of the world’s major agricultural bankers) cautioned attendees at the World Meat Congress in Winnipeg in June against expecting different countries and cultures to share the North American view of food safety. “Science doesn’t become the sole determinant,” he said. Science-based standards may be a necessary condition for market access, but they won’t always be sufficient. “Trade negotiators have to be more able to recognize philosophical and cultural differences. (FIW 24/6/04)

Canada’s “not a food policy”

Canada does not seem to have a food policy; what Canada has is an industrial commodity production and export policy. This policy operates for the benefit of transnational corporations which control major segments of the Canadian industrial food system: beef and pork, flour milling, oilseed processing, livestock and poultry feed – virtually every major sector except wheat exports, which is still in the hands of the Canadian Wheat Board (despite misguided and opportunistic farmers and predatory

In the food distribution sector two corporations dominate: Loblaw/Weston and Sobeys, with Loblaws (SuperStore, President’s Choice, etc.) in the controlling lead with about 38% of the market. Remember that the primary legal responsibility of corporations is maximization of returns to shareholders, not public health and well being, equitable distribution, or care of the environment.

Risk avoidance is thus a fundamental characteristic of capitalism in practice, if not in theory. As the current North American fetish of security is applied to the food system it encourages shelf-stable, preferably sterilized food, which in turn supports the centralization and concentration of the distribution system. Nutritional quality has had to be sacrificed so that what is called food can be processed, shipped and stored over great distances and long time periods, while, increasingly, synthetic nutrients are added
back in at the final stage of processing to compensate and for marketing purposes.

The current bureaucratic/political response to any problems with this system (eg. Avian Flu, see RH #222) appears to be further sterilization of the food system ostensibly to avoid the risk of disease. Of course this policy systematically increases the risk of disease.

A sensible health policy would call for highly decentralized, localized food systems based on healthy, living foods of great diversity that would nurture our immune systems to resist individualistic, genetically engineered, capitalist contamination.

Healthy food is not the same thing as ‘safe food.’ Indeed, ‘safe food’ is arguably not really either safe or healthy. In a highly centralized global food system with absurdly long supply lines, food is made ‘safe’ by being made as sterile as possible so that it can withstand the ravages of time, temperature and transportation, whether ‘fresh’ or processed and sealed in a tamper-proof package to ‘protect’ us from bio-terrorism. In fact this protects us from neither pesticide residues nor from the fact that the USA is the world’s #1 bio-terrorist with everything from GE contaminated food aid to botulism and anthrax factories developing Weapons of Mass Destruction. (For chilling details of US bio-warfare/terrorism activities, see www.

In February, a five-year research project, called the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network was launched with the collaboration of 25 universities and research institutes. A key focus will be on the hypothesis that the rise in allergies could be directly linked to the way we live, in bacteria-free homes eating semi-sterile food. Children exposed to more infections in early life are less prone to allergies and children raised on farms are less likely than others to get hayfever, asthma and eczema.– eczema/facts/news/

It is not as if we had no choice. There is an efficient and nutritious alternative that not only tastes better but also nurtures and strengthens both our communities and our immune systems: local food that has not been ‘killed’ or sterilized because it does not have to travel very far, does not require an eternal shelf life, and does not need to provide great profits to external parasites.

#223: August 2004 TOC
Safe Food? We look at the degradation of Hallowe'en into a commercial event as a sign of changes in the food system
Direct Action: mothers in Israel demand food from supermarkets
Supermarket Tantrums: The UK's Tesco chain is finding ways to amuse children while parents shop
Kraft cuts jobs: by the end of 2006 the food giant will have shed 6000 jobs
Moving Stuff: cheap imports from China
Whistle-Blowers: The model Health Canada employees would be the Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys
The revolving door:
 Former AgCanada minister Vanclief has become (what else) a lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton; US trade negotiators go to work for Hill & Knowlton as well
You say tomato: changes in the fruit mean changes in processing, including home canning
Healthier tomatoes: research shows that more sustainable practices deliver better plants
Phonetic Modification: Monsanto insists a crop trial is not a crop trial
The tricks of Monsanto's monopoly: Syngenta takes Monsanto to court for shady business practices
USDA ordered to disclose test sites: the locations of GE pharmaceutical crop tests in Hawaii must be revealed
Irradiation nixed: New rules limit use of irradiated food in public programs to feed children
Cows can fly after all: Brewster is amazed that the Canadian Cattlemen's Association is calling for orderly marketing
Packers profit: Tyson, Cargill, and XL Foods made a mint in the wake of BSE
The need to eat: Haiti - a model of liberalism but can't feed its people
The need to eat: USA - a record $41.6 billion went to food aid programs within the US
Who needs 'golden rice'?: a betacarotene-rich banana commonly used as a weaning food could prevent blindness in children.