Recall These Thoughts
Inanity from Scott Lougheed, PhD

From the PHAC on June 2nd 2018:

Currently, there are 59 cases of Salmonella Enteritidis illness in eight provinces: British Columbia (6), Alberta (8), Manitoba (9), Ontario (14), Quebec (19), New Brunswick (1), Nova Scotia (1), and Newfoundland and Labrador (1). Ten people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported. Individuals became sick between March and May 2018. The average age of cases is 34 years, with ages ranging from 1 to 82 years. The majority of cases (61%) are male.

Earlier this year I wrote about how the response to Salmonella in frozen breaded chicken products has been sluggish relative to the comparatively modest outbreak caused by E. coli in Beef processed by XL Foods. At the time of that post there were 86 illnesses, including one death, attributed to frozen breaded chicken products between 2015 and 2017. On June 2nd 2018 we can add 59 more illnesses to the roster, bringing the total to 145 illnesses in 3 years attributed to the same type of product.

The XL Foods-related outbreak resulted in 18 known illnesses, zero deaths, and severely tarnished career of the agricultural minister at the time. In this case, in 2015, industry introduced some new labelling initiatives after the 2015 outbreaks, but it wasn’t until March 2018 that the Canadian government announced it was working with industry to address the issue. It is dismaying that we are three years and 145 illnesses into this ordeal. Government and industry should have begun the hard work in 2015, not 2018. The proposed changes which require “industry to implement measures at the manufacturing/processing level to reduce Salmonella to below detectable amounts in frozen raw breaded chicken products” cannot come soon enough. At this rate I’m fairly sure we’ll see another outbreak before the 12 month deadline set by the CFIA is reached.


A recent survey from Dalhousie University conducted by Sylvain Charlebois and colleagues examined food recalls and food safety in Canada. While the study raises some important issues worthy of further investigation, I take issue with one area of concern cited by the study’s authors. The authors of the survey were troubled by their finding that most consumers did not feel they were among the “most responsible for ensuring food safety in Canada”, and that most consumers believed contamination generally took place before food reached their homes. Since cross-contamination in the home has been implicated in past foodborne illness outbreaks, one could conclude that consumers are not living up to their responsibility as guarantors of food safety. However, as I see it, placing primary responsibility for food safety on consumers is the troubling part for number of reasons.

First, it is important to disambiguate the location at which a foodborne hazard is introduced and where illness takes place. Of course most illness takes place in homes and restaurants since that is where food is typically consumed. However, this does not provide any indication of whether the product arrived at the home or restaurant contaminated or if it was contaminated during preparation. Illnesses take place where consumption occurs. Contamination can take place anywhere in the supply chain from farm to fork. Unless a consumer introduces a pathogen to otherwise uncontaminated food, the initial contamination that made cross-contamination possible had to have originated before reaching the consumer’s kitchen.

The evidence of where, on average, pathogenic contamination takes place, is not especially clear (see for example Jacob and Powell 2008). At a minimum, what little we do know suggests there is no strong evidence to support a claim that the majority of contamination takes place in the home. But since contamination originating in the home would not necessitate a recall, we can reasonably assume that any pathogen-related recall must be due to contamination that took place prior to the consumer. This is an issue currently plaguing frozen breaded chicken products, which until recently had been largely written off as a problem of consumer mis-handling.

Second, a consumer has no realistic way of personally assessing or verifying the activities of that supply chain. A consumer has rather limited agency in this regard. Instead, a consumer has to mostly to go on trust, brand reputation, regulations, laws, labels, and certifications to make up for the opacity and impersonality of the modern food supply chain (and no, blockchain isn’t a great solution either). In contrast, when a food packer or processor wants to ensure the safety and quality of incoming ingredients, they will often perform audits of their supplier’s facility and perhaps their supplier’s suppliers. They may also specify contractually-binding minimum quality attributes and bacterial loads. The packer or processor may also do their own tests of incoming raw ingredients. Consumers simply do not have the privilige of other supply chain participants to audit and inspect their suppliers, nor do they likely have the resources and knowledge to perform microbiological tests on products they buy.

It would, for example, be mildly absurd to blame the consumer for watery and limp lettuce purchased at the supermarket because that lettuce was likely grown, harvested, and processed half a world away. Why then should a consumer be blamed if the same lettuce was contaminated with E. coli? The consumer has about as much control over the quality of lettuce as they do the pathogen load. It may even be the case that they have less control over the pathogen load, since limpness—unlike microbes—can conceivably be detected by a human without the aid of technology or highly specialized skills.

Third, using cross-contamination by consumers as justification for making them the primary responsible party suggests that providing contaminated food to consumers is only a problem when a consumer “mis-handles” the product (e.g., by handling it in such a way as to cause cross-contamination). This echoes the longstanding reluctance of the food industry to take responsibility for pathogen reduction (see for example the beef industry’s opposition to new E. coli regulations in the 90s and here). However, history has shown that food producers often can do more to reduce pathogens in their products. The poultry industry, for decades, resisted the idea that they could take steps that would reduce the presence of Salmonella in poultry on retail shelves. When Walmart began requiring that its poultry suppliers introduce greater pathogen controls in order to remain on the retailer’s shelves, industry complied, and indeed the percentage of products contaminated with detectable levels of Salmonella decreased from 17% to 4%.

Finally, hazards such as mislabelling or undeclared allergens—which account for the majority of food recalls—by definition occur upstream of the consumer, and are neither detectable nor remediable by the consumer. In this instance responsibility for avoiding an adverse reaction or anaphylaxis cannot possibly be placed on the shoulders of a consumer. If we are thinking about consumer responsibility and recalls, then the number one cause of recalls is well beyond the remit of consumers. If we want to stay within the domain of pathogen-related recalls, the water continues to be murky. The number one product category responsible for foodborne illness as of the last few years is fresh produce, which unlike meat which we often associate with microbial hazards, is almost exclusively consumed raw. This leaves very little opportunity for consumers to take any preventative measures whatsoever.

There is a massive disparity in agency and power between consumers and almost every other member of the supply chain. Consumers are not empowered to be guarantors of food safety. Placing primary responsiblity for food safety on the shoulders of consumers is akin to blaming a passenger for not preventing a plane crash caused by pilot error. Consumers do have an important role to play in preventing foodborne illness, but food safety is a shared responsibility, and focusing on consumers may distract from the many ways that industry and regulators could and should be doing better.


In 2012, XL Foods issued an international recall of 1800 products potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and linked to 18 illnesses and zero deaths. The recall and outbreak were protracted affairs, with significant media attention beginning in October 2012 and continuing into 2013.1

The XL Foods recall and outbreak was also a political and public policy fiasco. The premier of Alberta, where XL Foods operated, was criticized for not responding to early signs of trouble.2 Meanwhile, political opponents fought to have Agriculture Minister Gary Ritz3 resign. Ritz was being blamed for crippling cutbacks the CFIA’s enforcement capabilities, was painted as generally lacking competence and leadership, and as “having failed consumers badly”.

In the wake of the recall and outbreak, there was significant debate and relatively prompt action taken by numerous stakeholders.4 There was an independent inquiry into the underlying causes of the contamination, outbreak, and recall; the branch of the CFIA responsible for food safety was re-assigned to report to the Health Minister instead of the Agricultural Minister5; and new labelling laws were proposed and introduced for mechanically tenderized beef.6

XL Foods was a truly massive recall, but in the history of illness outbreaks, it was not the largest, not the deadliest, indeed it was somewhat unremarkable.7 Yet it was a political firestorm.

Fast-forward a few years: Over the course of 2015-2017 there were three outbreaks of salmonella attributed to frozen breaded chicken products in Canada.8 In total there were 86 reported illnesses across Canada including one death. Most recently, Public Health Agency of Canada has announced that there had been an outbreak between May 2017 and February 2018, with 30 illnesses, all attributed to frozen breaded chicken products.9

It was industry that took action first, and in 2015 voluntarily established guidelines for more prominent “uncooked” labels and clear directives not to microwave products.10

The CFIA and Health Canada, responding to the 2015 outbreak and recall, the largest of the three, spelled out steps consumers can take to avoid illness:

If you are preparing frozen raw breaded chicken products there are precautions you should take to protect your health.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling raw poultry products.
  • Use a separate plate, cutting board, and utensils when handling raw poultry products to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.
  • Frozen raw breaded chicken products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, but some contain raw chicken and should be handled and prepared no differently than raw poultry products.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked poultry products. Cook all frozen, stuffed, breaded or raw poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 74°C (165°F) to ensure they are safe to eat. Whole poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F).
  • Due to uneven heating, microwave cooking of frozen raw breaded poultry products including chicken nuggets, strips or burgers is not recommended. Always follow package cooking instructions, including products labelled Uncooked, Cook and Serve, Ready to Cook, and Oven Ready.

The federal agencies went on to attempt to describe what the government planned to do to prevent consumers from getting sick:

What the Government of Canada is doing
The Government of Canada is committed to food safety. The Public Health Agency of Canada is leading the human health investigation of this outbreak and is in regular contact with its federal and provincial partners to monitor and take collaborative steps to address the outbreak. Health Canada provides food-related health risk assessments to determine if the presence of a certain substance or microorganism poses a health risk to consumers. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducts food safety investigations into the possible food source of an outbreak. The Government of Canada will continue to update Canadians as new information related to this investigation becomes available.

Similar responses from the government accompanied the two 2017 illness outbreaks. By the end of 2017, after one death and over 80 illnesses, no federal agency had made a clear statement about what they would do to prevent consumers from getting sick, and other than industry’s voluntary guidelines, no changes to labelling or pathogen controls were introduced.

The relatively trite and useless response, from all stakeholders, including government, media, and the public stands in stark contrast to that which quickly followed the XL Foods scandal.11 Nobody is calling for the current Public Health minister Jane Philpott’s head, nobody is publicly calling out industry, the media has published public notices without the additional commentary and editorializing that took place in 2012, and politicians have yet to play the political blame-game. In fact, in the case of the June 2017 outbreak, the CFIA dragged its feet in going public with the name of the affected products and implicated company.

While industry’s voluntary labelling efforts are better than nothing, they don’t address the underlying problem because you can’t label pathogens out of your food. Labels, and the oft-repeated advice from government to properly cook these products severely misses the point. It places the burden of food safety solely on consumers’ shoulders. The assumption that contaminated products are safe if they are cooked properly also misses issues of cross-contamination and assumes that consumers have the right skills and tools (e.g., an accurate, quick-read thermometer) to actually determine when something is “cooked properly”. Or as Doug Powell on Barf Blog put it: “why is a teenager popping a few chicken nuggets in the microwave after school the critical control point in the frozen chicken thingie food safety system?” It also assumes that small, back-of-package labels that indicate the un-cooked state of the product are sufficient. The producers of frozen breaded chicken products had really been given a pass.

Things, thankfully, are changing, although it has taken three years and over 80 illnesses to get to government to act. On March 13, 2018, the CFIA announced it is working with the poultry industry to reduce the risk from Salmonella in frozen, breaded chicken products. From the press release:

These new measures call for processors to identify salmonella as a hazard and to implement changes in order to produce an end product that reduces salmonella to below a detectable amount. The CFIA has granted industry a 12-month implementation period, to begin immediately, to make these changes.

If only the feds had, you know, thought to ask “WTF is salmonella doing in frozen chicken thingies that people cook in the microwave?” as Doug Powell of Barf Blog did eight years ago.

I remain curious about why XL Foods was a national scandal and why it took so long for Salmonella in frozen breaded chicken to register even a modest public and regulatory response. I’ll be interested to see how this goes over the next 12 months.

  1. See, for example: here, and here, and here

  2. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/staff-at-xl-foods-shocked-by-layoffs-1.1269303 

  3. To whom the CFIA reported at the time. 

  4. Of course, how effective that action has been could be debated. 

  5. a move seen by some opposition members of parliament as a punishment of Gary Ritz by diminishing his responsibility and portfolio 

  6. Mechanically tenderized beef—cuts of beef that are tenderized by being punctured by dozens of small blades—was identified as one of the most problematic products. While pathogens on the surface of whole muscle (“intact”) cuts is permissible, because it will be in direct contact with the cooking surface and thus inactivated, the blades used in mechanical tenderization can inject pathogens from the surface of the muscle to the interior of the meat where they can grow, and where they may not be inactivated by heat without thorough cooking. Mechanically tenderized meat therefore can be higher risk than truly intact cuts, but prior to 2012, where existed no regulatory nor labelling distinction, despite the well-established difference in risk. 

  7. Some Which is by no means to diminish how terrible any foodborne illness outbreaks are. 18 illnesses is 18 illnesses too many. 

  8. In 2015 there was a recall of No Name and Compliments brand frozen, breaded chicken products linked to an outbreak of 51 illnesses in four eastern provinces. In July 2017, there was a recall of President’s Choice brand frozen, breaded chicken products link to an outbreak of 13 illnesses across Canada. And finally, in October 2017, there was a recall of Janes Pub Style frozen breaded chicken products linked to an outbreak of 22 illnesses (including 1 death) across Canada. 

  9. It’s not abundantly clear where one 2017 outbreak ends and the other begins. 

  10. Though I have not found the actual text or documentation for these guidelines, so it is not clear what the actual requirements are, whether implementation of these guidelines is voluntary or not, and what the incentives to follow/punishments for not following them are. 

  11. Lets also not forget about the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 and nearly sank Maple Leaf foods, which was also followed by massive public and political outcry as well as an independent investigation


I am delighted to announce that as of March, I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto.

I will be working with Virginia Maclaren on issues related to the role of the consumer under extended producer responsibility in Ontario.


Recently, I’ve been increasing the amount of information I keep in Apple’s Notes application, which received a significant feature update in iOS 9. One thing I struggled with, however, was finding an easy way to surface needed information in Notes at a specific time.

I don’t like to store reference data in my task manager or calendar because the information in those applications is, by definition, transient, and a lot of the material I need to reference to perform those tasks is not. DEVONthink (and DEVONthink To Go), my information manager of choice, very easily creates links to anything you store inside of it. You can paste these links anywhere on iOS and macOS and they will be clickable and take you directly to the desired file. Very handy. I frequently paste these links into OmniFocus tasks or calendar events so I don’t have to manually browse for the information by digging through countless folders.

But with more and more of my information going into Notes instead of DEVONthink, and as an adherent to the mantra that you never keep your reference materials in your task manager, I was a bit frustrated that I had to manually browse the Notes app to surface information I might need for a given task.

As it turns out, you can exploit the collaboration features introduced to Notes in iOS 9 to mimic DEVONthink’s file linking.

Open the note you would like to link to and tap the Add Person icon.

Add Person to Notes

You’ll be provided with a standard iOS share sheet. Locate the “Copy Link” action in the bottom row and tap it.

At this point you’re prompted to enter an email address or phone number of a potential collaborators.1 Since we’re collaborating with ourselves today, you can just tap Copy Link in the top right to copy the link to your clipboard and dismiss the share sheet.

Copy Link

Now you can easily paste this link into the Notes section of your task manager of choice, or the URL section of a calendar event, or anywhere else you please. Clicking on this link will take you straight to the note so you don’t have to do any time-consuming digging and browsing.

If you are interested in taking things a few steps further, Federico Viticci at MacStories has a great writeup on how he uses Notes on iOS.

  1. Which seems odd, since this is the same prompt you get if you select to share by Messages or Email, so I don’t see why you should also see it when using the generic Copy Link action! 


I’ve created a workflow to easily rename PDF files on iOS in the following pattern:

author year - title.pdf

Download the Workflow application for iOS

Download my PDF Namer workflow

The Basics

I love reading academic journal articles on my iPad. But what about finding those articles and saving the PDFs of those articles in an appropriate location with a nice title? Often, while reading, I’ll come across a citation to an article I want to track down. Ideally I’d be able to download and rename the file without switching devices (because lets face it, if I don’t do it right this moment, I’ll never do it). This can be somewhat cumbersome on an iPad, particularly if you don’t have your external keyboard deployed. It can be tricky to rename a file, while viewing that file, in iOS. You got to keep, in your frail human working memory, all the details such as the title and authors that you want to include in the name.

This was the perfect sort of problem to be solved by the very powerful iOS app called Workflow. If you aren’t familiar with Workflow on iOS, Workflow allows users to automate certain repetitive or complex tasks using a straightforward drag-and-drop interface ( it’s a bit like Automator on the Mac).

For a primer on Workflow, check out the great guide put together at iMore, and all the detailed articles put together by Federico Viticci at MacStories

I’ve written a workflow that walks users through the process of renaming a file stored in iCloud Drive, Dropbox, or Box. Once you install the Workflow app (if you don’t already have it installed), you can simply download my workflow to include it in your collection.

Once installed, all you have to do is run the workflow (either from the Today widget, or from within the Workflow application itself) and you’ll be walked through the process of renaming the file. Here’s how that should go:

  1. A dialogue box will prompt you to select the PDF you want from iCloud Drive
  2. Once selected, it will show you a preview of the PDF and ask you to copy the title to the clipboard and click “Done” in the top right.
  3. You’ll be presented with a text box containing the clipboard contents for you to confirm that you’ve got the title right.
  4. You’ll be shown a preview of the PDF again and prompted to copy the publication year to the clipboard and tap “done”. If there’s no easily-copiable year, you can just click Done and manually enter it in the next step.
  5. You’ll once again be presented with a text box filled with the date you selected. This allows you to confirm the correct year was selected, or manually enter the year if you didn’t copy it to the clipboard in step 4.
  6. You’ll be prompted to indicate the number of authors on the article.
  7. For each author (up to 3) you’ll go through the preview-copy-done routine we’ve been through several times. If you indicate that the article has more than three authors, the workflow will only ask you for the first author’s name and append “et al”. If there are superscript numerals attached to authors’ names, don’t worry about trying to avoid copying those, the workflow will remove them for you.
  8. You’ll be presented with a text box containing all the author names for you to verify or enter manually.
  9. Workflow will then delete the original file and prompt you to chose a location to save the newly renamed file.

Typically what I’ll do is save the PDF from Safari to the root directory (the bare /iCloud Drive or /Dropbox folder) and run the workflow from the Today widget. At the end of the workflow, I save the renamed file in the proper location (whichever folder matches the subject matter of the article) and the workflow simply deletes un-named file in the root directory.

Nitty Gritty

This seems like a lot of steps, but the beauty of this workflow is that you can go through the renaming process without having to touch the keyboard at all.

Now for some more technical details for those who want to get into the weeds a bit.

For such a simple task – renaming a file and saving it back to the location you choose – it looks somewhat complicated. I’ve included a number of conditionals and error-correcting steps to try account for as many contingencies as possible.

  1. Not all PDFs contain selectable text, or the actual text layer is corrupt. This is why you are prompted to verify the clipboard contents: if there are errors this allows you to correct it, if the text isn’t selectable, you can enter it manually. This adds an extra step to each part of the title, but it means that this workflow is still usable in most cases even for old or edge-case PDFs.
  2. I deal with strange capitalizations and strip special or unwanted characters like trailing spaces at each step. In many cases, journals will use superscript numerals to denote author affiliations. I’ve noticed that using the iOS text selectors, it can be hard to avoid these numerals, so in the Author selection stage, I use a REGEX query to find numerals and delete them. A similar issue exists with journal titles that span across a line. In some cases, this may actually result in a line-break being copied to the clipboard. Again, a REGEX query finds these and replaces them with a space.
  3. If there are more than three authors, I want to append an “et al” rather than have the user copy and paste a dozen author names. This required me to set up several nested conditionals for one author, between 1 and 4 authors, and 4 or more authors.

Customizations

My default the workflow prompts you to select a file from iCloud Drive, which is my file sync of choice. If you want to have it prompt you to select files from Dropbox or Box, simply make the appropriate change to “Get File” and “Save File” actions at the beginning and end of the Workflow.

Unfortunately, if you would like to have the filename contain different information or ordered differently, that would require some extensive reconfiguring of the workflow. Feel free to dive in to try and do it yourself if you’d like, or reach out to me and I’ll see what I can do.

Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know how it goes!


I have a new publication with Myra Hird in the Journal of Crime, Law, and Social Change titled “Food Security and Secure Food in the Anthropocene”

Modes of Governing Abstract


Myself and my collaborators have a new publication in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning titled “Modes of Governing Canadian Waste Management: a case study of Metro Vancouver’s energy-from-waste controversy”

Modes of Governing Abstract


What it does

iMessageR is a small and simple package for the R statistics package that allows a user to send iMessages to any phone number or email address registered with iMessage service.

I know that there are a number of similar ways that this can be done, such as making a system call to mail, but this requires that postfix be properly configured on the system, and this is not always the case. Even when this is properly configured, mail would send to conventional email addresses without issue, but receiving messages sent to carrier-provided SMS email addresses (e.g., 5551234567@txt.att.net) was unreliable. This was not ideal.

There are also a number of packages for sending messages from R using gmail. This is great but also requires some amount of additional configuration in R in order to function. I figured iMessages was the lowest friction option for Mac and iOS users.

I suspect this will be especially helpful for R users who run lengthy analyses and would like an alert to their phone (or any other iMessage capable device) indicating when the analysis is complete.

Since you can use this function any number of times and customize the message, you could even take things one step further and use iMessageR to help with debugging. For example, you could insert calls to this function at different locations in your script to indicate progress through your program. Alternatively you could insert it into a trycatch() or some other exception-handling system to alert you of an error.

No iPhone?

Since iMessages is available to any user with a Mac, whether or not that user has an iPhone, iMessageR could be used by a Mac user regardless of the type of phone they use. Without an iPhone, the user would, of course, only be able to receive notifications on their Mac (or any other Mac also configured with that iMessage email address or phone number). So while an iPhone (or iPod Touch) is ideal in order to receive the most benefit, even Mac users without an iOS device will likely find some utility here.

Installation

The iMessageR package can be downloaded directly from cran or can be installed from within R:

install.packages("iMessager")
library(iMessager)

This will give you access to the function

send.imessage(recipient: STRING, message: STRING)

Known Issues

  • If the message string contains single or double quotes, the function will fail.
  • If the email address or phone number is incorrect or unrecognized, there is no notice to the user.

The future

I’d like to try to make this package more accessible to different platforms. I hope to add support for a wider range of platforms by adding options for different services. Presently I am thinking of Pushbullet or WhatsApp but this will depend on the level of API integration those services expose.

I should note that I am neither a computer programmer nor a habitual R user, so this is very new territory for me in a number of ways! As such I will try and address issues and add enhancements in my spare time, as my nascent skills allow.

Connect with me

Connect with me on github where you can submit an issue or fork away!

Or reach out to me on twitter: @scottisloud.


The CBC’s Marketplace is focusing on retail food waste this week. Yesterday we heard from a former Walmart contractor that a ‘heartbreaking’ amount of food is trashed every day. Today, Marketplace reveals its findings from 12 days of sifting through Walmart dumpsters.
This is a great scoop for the CBC and I think this kind of coverage is just what is needed to bring light to a shameful problem. Food retail accounts for 10% of the food wasted in Canada. This is a small slice of the pie, but in absolute terms, it’s a substantial amount of food (it is, after all, a very big pie). These CBC stories can stand on their own, but I wanted to add some additional commentary and nuance based on some of my experience and research on food waste.

Marketplace found cartons of milk days ahead of their best-before date, and Parmesan cheese with months left before it needed to be thrown away.

Assuming these products are not contaminated or otherwise unsafe, this is troubling. Best-before dates on both of these products are largely unrelated to safety. A solid piece of Parmesan cheese can be safely stored for a very long time. Barring any cross-contamination in a retailer’s or consumer’s fridge, the worst that will happen is the growth of some mould, which is a quality, not a safety, issue, and will not cause someone harm.

Mevawala, formerly with one of the company’s Edmonton stores, says if a piece of fruit or vegetable didn’t look perfect, it had to be thrown in the trash.

Moreover, cosmetic imperfections are a reflection of arbitrary quality standards that are a large reason food is disposed of at the retail level. Retailers will claim that these arbitrary quality standards are the fault of consumers, but this is untrue. This is a marketing failure. There is demand for these products, they just need to be marketed correctly. Loblaws is beginning to dip their toe into this market segment with imperfect apples marketed under their No Name brand. This is also failure of retailers to capitalize on their own value-added departments. These cosmetically imperfect produce items, if not sold to consumers directly, should become part of value-added products in-store. Fruit salads, vegetable trays, pre-chopped vegetables, etc. could all be made from imperfect products.

Over the course of more than 12 visits to the stores, Marketplace staff repeatedly found produce, baked goods, frozen foods, meat and dairy products. Most of the food was still in its packaging, rather than separated for composting.

This quote highlights a significant issue with how retail food waste is often handled. In many cases retailers want to get ‘unsaleable’ goods (however they define that) off their shelves and our of their warehouse as quickly as possible. Typically this means disposing of it directly into their dumpsters or compactors. The above quote draws attention to several problems: all that organic material ends up in landfill where it is a significant source of methane; all that packaging is, to the dismay of brand owners, in-tact and visible to anyone willing to dip their nose into a dumpster or landfill; and that packaging, the majority of which is recyclable, also ends up in landfill.

Retailers regularly fail to take advantage of the services of depackagers. Depackagers, as the name implies, remove food from its packaging. They then send the food to anaerobic digestion, rendering, or some other destination where it is at least marginally more valuable and less environmentally harmful than landfill. They also shred and recycling the packaging, which conveniently obscures the branding (not that that is needed, as most depackagers are very security conscious and discreet, unlike the dumpster!). There is unused depackaging capacity in southern Ontario, and most retailers are not taking advantage of these services because:

  • It is disruptive – they are at the mercy of the depackager to pick up products which may not be as fast as the retailer would like. It’s hard to beat the convenience of tossing unsaleable goods directly and immediately into the dumpster or compactor.
  • It’s another contract to juggle in addition to standard waste collection.
  • It may not be available at 100% of a retail chain’s locations which makes uniform policy and best practice for store managers more difficult.
  • For some retailers it just isn’t even a priority, it’s not even on the agenda.

This needs to change. While we need to reduce food waste generation upstream, there will always be some amount of downstream waste. That downstream waste could be handled better, and there’s possibility for that to happen today.

Also in the garbage: bottles of water, frozen cherries that were still cold and tubs of margarine. In a statement, Walmart said it believes the food Marketplace found was unsafe for consumption. In many cases, however, the food was well before its best-before date and appeared to be fresh. Or, if it needed refrigeration or freezing, the food found was still cold.

I have to take issue with the CBC commentary here. Coldness, best-before dates, and appearance are all terrible indicators of safety. None of the indicators listed in the quote provide any particularly useful data to make a decent risk management decision. Best-before dates are often arbitrary, typically refer to quality (at their best) and not safety, and can’t account for variability in storage temperature and handling. Further to this point, just because something that is meant to be cold is cold, doesn’t mean it is safe. There’s simply not enough information for a gleaner to know how long the product has been at a given temperature or if there’s a hazard that can’t be seen.

Our senses are pretty good judges of quality: we can taste soured milk, which is perfectly safe to eat, if perhaps a bit unpleasant. But we can’t taste Hepatitis in still-frozen berries, or an undeclared allergen in a baked good that might result in illness or death if consumed unknowingly by a gleaner or someone that gleaner feeds, or a fresh apple contaminated with Listeria.The reality is, the majority of things that are going to make us sick cannot be seen, smelled, felt, or tasted. Our eyes, fingers, noses, and tongues are bad judges of food safety.

Dumpster-divers, gleaners, freegans, are doing good work recovering perfectly edible food, but it is really risky business unless you take great care (and even then, still risky). There are ways to reduce risks, such as keeping an eye on recall notices before gleaning and becoming familiar with which products are lower risk than others when temperature history and handling are unknowns.

But the reality is, in instances like this, products that look perfectly good may be perfectly bad. Products that are perfectly good may come into contact with harmful products and show no signs of that contact, resulting in cross-contamination. Again, these are things we cannot detect with our own senses. As long as legitimately good food and food recalled for posing a health threat are intermingled in the same bins, it’s impossible to, with any degree of certainty, separate the two.

But even the people in charge don’t necessarily know the difference between quality and safety:

“On some occasions, food which has not passed its best-before date is deemed unsafe for consumption,” Walmart said in its statement. “As a rule we don’t place fresh food items on display for sale if the quality is not acceptable.”

Here, the Walmart spokesperson is dangerously conflating safety and quality. There is a grand canyon that separates what counts as “safe food” and food that possesses “acceptable quality”. A statement like this erroneously reproduces the notion that quality is a safety issue, which is is not (though they may, in some cases be related). It also further occludes the rationale that underlies Walmart’s disposal practice: Is the food in the dumpster dangerous, or does it merely fail to meet some perceived quality expectation? Dangerous food should never be made, and if it is, shouldn’t be sold to consumers. Food that deviates from quality expectations but is safe should be sold and consumed by humans.

Marketplace staff looked for food waste at all the major retailers, including Costco, Metro, Sobeys, Loblaws and Walmart. While staffers found bins full of food at some Walmart locations, other chains had compactors making it impossible to see what they throw out.

This is some seriously bad practice from Walmart. No brand owner wants their products on display to anyone who walks to the back of a store. Retailers also generally “field destroy” recalled products, that is, when there is a product recall, they dispose of it on-site rather than send it back up through the supply chain. Compactors offer security from both a brand and public health perspective inasmuch as dangerous products are destroyed and inaccessible (though, of course, the use of a depackaging service is also secure and environmentally superior, but not typically used by retailers when handling recalled products). An unfortunate side-effect of compactors is that they prohibit informal recovery by gleaners and freegans, but the tradeoff is marginally improved brand and public health security. Walmart needs to prioritize security and switch to compactors. They’re playing a dangerous game with open dumpsters (though, as the CBC story notes, they’ve now started locking those dumpsters at least).

Food waste is a pernicious problem. We waste way too much food. What we can do today is reduce the impact of that waste. However, what is really needed is upstream solutions that reduce the overall generation of food waste. This means reducing contamination and safety problems that lead to product recalls. This means reducing over-production. This means reducing knee-jerk price-hikes that result in surpluses and subsequent blow-outs or disposal. It means disrupting the reproduction of arbitrary quality standards. We have a long way to go towards reducing food waste across the value chain, but what CBC is showing us with these stories is that there are some immediate steps that can be taken to reduce food waste and the attending environmental harm.

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