Protecting The Taste Of An Island Summer

Newfoundland is one very few places on earth safe from the blueberry maggot. An overwhelmed Canadian Food Inspection Agency jeopardized our access to wild blueberries this summer.

When Costco recalled blueberry plants last month, for a moment I forgot to breathe. The signature of a Newfoundland summer was at risk.

Food product recalls have become uncomfortably familiar in the last few years. Whether it is flour, chicken strips, strawberries, or lettuce, one commonality is always present: time. These products have sat on store shelves and in our homes for days, weeks, and sometimes even months before any recalls were issued. Why?

To put it bluntly, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is under-resourced, under-staffed, and completely overwhelmed. The speed and volume of imports into our country and province make inspection an impossibility. A more apt name for this government organization would be the Canadian Food Reaction Agency as they do not function as gatekeepers but rather as fire suppression agents.

When someone from Thunder Bay gets sick and the diagnosis is acute salmonella poisoning, the chicken nuggets they have had for lunch are then inspected. Once the nuggets are shown to be half chicken, half civilization of salmonella, a product and batch number are located and a recall is issued.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is trolling Canadian hospitals for reports of Bloor Belly in  Toronto, outbreaks of St. Catherine’s Stomach in Montreal or the dreaded Dengue Dash and Wobble of Duck and Water in St. John’s. Only then is something actually inspected.

The speed and volume of imports into our country and province make inspection an impossibility.

So if they’re not gatekeepers, who is? Increasingly the answer to that question is large scale importers which feed point of sale companies.

In 2017 there were 154,225 importing enterprises whose paperwork is more often than not the only thing to receive even a cursory glance. There are approximately 7200 employees working for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That is more than 21 companies per person with each company bringing in millions of dollars worth of goods each and every day. If that doesn’t make you squirm at least a little I’m not sure what will.

The Costco blueberry plants entered the Province without any inspection, without any paperwork and were sold throughout the months of June and July. it was not until blueberry maggots were found elsewhere in the country did the Canadian Food Inspection Agency investigate and ultimately issue a total recall on August 5th.

By that time 669 plants had been sold at the St. John’s Costco and planted in gardens throughout the Province.

The island of Newfoundland was one of the few blueberry producing regions on Earth completely unaffected by the blueberry maggot. Now that may no longer be true. In the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec, and the north eastern American states, the blueberry maggot has decimated wild blueberries and commercial growers only survive by way of massive campaigns of insecticide and pesticide spraying, costing millions.

What we stand to lose is far greater than money. Ask an Englishman what typifies an English summer and they’ll probably say strawberries and cream. When I was recently asked what the taste of a Newfoundland summer was I quickly trotted out the stock answers of Jiggs Dinner, toutons and molasses, cod au gratin, or fish and chips smothered in vinegar. But with a little more reflection I know that the taste of a Newfoundland summer is without question the blueberry.

Blueberry baked goods on a cool evening, frozen blueberries with milk and sugar on a hot afternoon, and of course fistfuls of fresh blueberries out on the land picked with loved ones.

Take advantage of wild blueberries this September, and maybe like me, hold your breath a little and hope that it won’t be the last.

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