Food Fight at the Canadian Food Summit

Talk about stepping in it. Loblaws executive chairman, Galen Weston, caused an uproar in the local food community by saying that “Farmers markets are great. One day they’re going to kill some people though.”  He was speaking about food safety at the Canadian Food Summit in Toronto. He quickly added, “I’m just saying that to be dramatic though”.

It’s unlikely that the damage-control efforts the next day will have much impact. It had the unfortunate effect of ensuring that nothing else Galen Weston had to say got reported. And what a can of worms he opened. To make things worse, a professor of food safety in Kansas, Dr. Douglas Powell, published a commentary in which he not only dismissed the objections from the head of Farmers Markets Ontario but also disparaged farmers’ market vendors and the Ontario Food Terminal: “just because someone drives to the Food Terminal in Toronto to load up on produce at 3 a.m. and then sells it at a premium to the local market adds nothing to traceability.

According to Dr. Powell, he does not trust any food source unless it has been laboratory-tested. “When I go to a farmers market or a megalomarket … I ask about microbial test strategies and results as verification that the farmer, whether she bought it or grew it herself, has a clue about dangerous micro-organisms.

University of Guelph Professor Art Hill noted, “There’s a certain amount of risk associated with all food production”. Do consumers want to examine microbial lab reports or discuss sanitation strategies with a food vendor? Is that what our food supply has come to? Dr. Powell says that “trust me” isn’t enough. “There’s already enough faith-based food safety out there.

Well, I have news.  ALL food commerce is typically based on trust. I quite often hear people say that they choose one supermarket – or avoid one – because they trust, or don’t trust, the quality of certain products. Now lets’ compare:

  • The local grower is selling to his neighbours and community. Like big corporations, they live or die by reputation – but without the influence of a seven figure advertising campaign, no PR department, and no celebrity spokesperson, mostly just word of mouth. Who would you trust?
  • Vendors at a farmers market are admitted by a committee of their peers – farmers and producers who run the market. Market operators have a stake in maintaining the standards and reputation of their community market. Market vendors have only one source of supply – themselves. Supermarkets buy from hundreds of domestic and international agri-businesses trying to maximize yield for a national or global market. Corporate buyers and government standards determine what is put on shelves. Who would you trust?
  • The local vendor you’re buying from probably eats his own product every day. Processors and supermarkets rely on random sample testing. Who would you trust?

It seems that, if Ontario’s 175 farmers’ markets have achieved $7oo million in annual sales, people have placed a lot of trust in them and their local vendors. Like every other food channel, the local food community needs to avoid being complacent. Food safety relies on every person growing, processing and handling food. Thanks for reminding us, Mr. Weston. But try not to be so dramatic next time, OK?

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