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Safe Preparation and Storage of Aboriginal Traditional/Country Foods

Topics: Aboriginal Environmental Health, Food

Aboriginal populations in Canada (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) have a diverse culture and live in a wide range of habitats. Traditionally, they obtained foods by harvesting, hunting, and fishing; referred to as traditional/country foods. Policy-makers and health professionals have recognized the importance and the benefit of traditional foods and efforts are made to encourage intake. Until recently, the principle food safety concern was environmental contaminants. Current issues include: food preparation and storage methods of traditional country foods; microbiological hazards of traditional foods; assessment of the effectiveness of programs regarding these hazards; emerging issues such as climate change; and research gaps.

Many Aboriginal communities consume foods raw or undercooked so parasite transfer is of concern; incidents of parasitic disease are higher in Aboriginal populations. Aboriginal practice includes the use of “fermentation”/putrefaction and consumption of viscera/organ meats. The former has caused a large number of outbreaks of Clostridium botulinum, due to improper preparatory techniques. Public health officials have reacted by producing educational programming about appropriate containers and food safety practices. Little research has examined the risks and benefits from the consumption of viscera. Traditional food barriers to consumption have arisen; such as, decline of harvesting, hunting, fishing, and trapping skills. In addition, climate changes can alter distribution and health of animal populations and affect the land, water, and ice. Increased temperatures can increase the incidence of foodborne illnesses (e.g., gastroenteritis, paralytic shellfish poisoning, and botulism), introduce new pathogens as host or vector ranges expand, and contaminate water supplies by flooding. Emerging pathogens, such as Echinococcus multilocularis require ongoing vigilance regarding the effect upon wild game hosts and humans.

Four risk-reduction methods were identified: maintenance of traditional knowledge, prevention of growth of risk agents, public health monitoring and surveillance, and education. Documenting and examining existing related Indigenous knowledge can benefit the development of risk-reduction strategies. Rapid dissemination of test results, to communities affected by a trichinosis outbreak, was reported to be an effective prevention measure. More research based upon foodborne illness outbreak data can guide future preventive programming. The efficacy of food safety education programs has not been clearly demonstrated but studies in risk communication have indicated that some programs may not function because of conflicting messages and literacy and language barriers. Most initiatives lack evaluation. Knowledge of safe food practices does not always translate to behaviour. Educational efforts must be structured using traditional knowledge, and
specific cultural beliefs and values (e.g. involving the community and ensuring that content and process is locally based and locally relevant). It is readily apparent that food safety has not been studied in detail beyond nutritional analysis. Due to difficulties conducting randomized, controlled trials in isolated communities and the ethical dilemma of such research when using humans, the level of research is not evidence-based but originates from nonrandomized trials, observational studies, and most frequently from expert opinion. Effective programs should include evidence-based interventions combined with culturally appropriate knowledge translation strategies.

Research recommendations: investigate a collaborative, multi-agency approach to examine the microbiological risks of traditional foods; develop a food safety risk assessment and management program for traditional foods, building upon the model used by Health Canada for the Northern Contaminants Program (NCP); and address multi-jurisdictional issues to consumption of wild game in public settings and institutions.

Safe Preparation and Storage of Aboriginal Traditional/Country Foods

Publication DateMar 20, 2009
AuthorFood Safety Network
Posted by NCCEHDec 14, 2010