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The Country Food Test

The Country Food Test

How a laboratory in Iqaluit provides comfort to lovers of a Nunavut comfort food
By Kassina Ryder
Nov 02
From the October/November 2018 Issue

You either love it or you hate it. When it comes to igunaq, there is no middle ground.

The result of burying walrus in the earth for several months until fermented, it is a delicacy for some but is absolutely reviled by others.

Pootoogoo Toonoo from Cape Dorset, Nunavut adores it, especially when it’s really juicy. Usually served scored or cut into chunks, it smells like rotting meat—an odour that’s either a turn on or a turn off, depending on who you ask. Igunaq has long been a special treat and it holds a place of honour at community feasts today. For Toonoo, it’s more than food: it’s a way to connect with her culture. “I just keep the tradition going,” she says. “I ferment it whenever I have a chance.”

Igunaq and other country foods are vital sources of nutrition in Nunavut, where nearly 70 percent of the population lives in a home considered food insecure. (That’s eight times the national average.)

But an invisible enemy is threatening walrus and polar bear, two of the animals that make up part of a country food diet. The trichinella parasite is a microscopic roundworm that infects animals, causing trichinosis. You often can’t see it or smell it, but it has the power to kill. In Greenland after WWII, a series of trichinosis outbreaks made 420 people sick, 37 of whom died.

Trichanella Nativa. Courtesy USDA

There have been no confirmed trichinella-related deaths in Nunavut, but the territory averages one to two outbreaks every year. Thoroughly cooking trichinella-infected meat kills the parasite, but it easily survives other methods of food preparation, including fermentation.

But how can a walrus hunter feel confident their catch won’t get someone sick if there’s no way to tell by sight or smell?

Hunters had the answer. They began calling for a permanent trichinella-testing facility in the territory that would provide timely and accurate test results to harvesters.

After years of development, such a facility opened in Iqaluit in 2017, modeled on Nunavik’s successful trichinella-testing program, which had been operating in the Nunavik Research Centre in Kuujjuaq since the 1990s. 

Before the Iqaluit lab opened, samples from Nunavut had to be flown to Kuujjuaq and even without weather delays, it still took a full 24 hours to get results. Today, when a walrus hunter in Iqaluit brings a sample of his catch to the lab, he’ll know whether the animal is infected within hours. Testing is available to every community: hunters can contact local hunters and trappers organizations or conservation officers and send samples to the lab for free.

Delivering faster results has had an immediate impact on food security for those who depend on the annual walrus hunt. “Last summer was great,” says Jamal Shirley, manager of research design with the Nunavut Research Institute. “They would land their boats at the dock. They would send a hunter in with a bag of tongues and, by that afternoon, they could distribute the meat to community members.”

Testing has expanded to include polar bear as well. Though the majority of polar bears carry trichinella, the meat is typically eaten cooked, so it poses less of a risk to humans.

The trichinella parasite is found all over the world, but the Arctic variety is particularly tough. The type found in Nunavut, known as T. nativa, is specially adapted to the Arctic’s below-freezing temperatures. In the early stages of its life, trichinella larvae live encased in a nurse cell in the muscle tissue of its host. When other animals—including humans—eat that muscle, the larvae essentially “hatch” in the new animal’s stomach acid. Within 48 hours of entering the small intestine, the worms mature into adults, which find each other and mate, producing more larval offspring. Those larvae travel through the animal’s bloodstream into the muscle cells where they can lie dormant for years. “When that infected muscle is consumed by another animal, that cycle begins again,” Shirley says.

Animals often show no symptoms of infection and the meat may not always have visible cysts. Testing is the only way to know for sure. And that knowledge is vital to keeping people safe.

Symptoms of trichinella infection, called trichinosis, depend on how many larvae a person ingests. A few days after eating infected meat, people can experience nausea and vomiting, fever and diarrhea. In another eight to 15 days, symptoms can turn into coughing, eye-swelling, aching and itchy skin.

As the parasite burrows into a person’s muscles and other tissue, symptoms get more critical and can include weakness, sensitivity to light, pink eye and high fever. Without treatment, severe trichinosis infection can cause death as the parasite migrates into vital organs, such as the heart, lungs and brain.

Rankin Inlet hunter James Sateana says he would never share meat without having it checked first now that the test is available. He believes all walrus hunters should do the same. “It is much safer,” he says.

Sateana has watched members of his own family suffer with the illness. Some became weak and had trouble breathing. One fell into a coma-like state and couldn’t be brought back to consciousness without medical intervention.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency came up with the test used by the Iqaluit lab and it’s a fairly simple process. At least 10 grams worth of the animal’s tongue are put in a mixture of enzymes, acid and water, that simulates stomach digestion acid. The mixture is placed in a 45 C incubator—to imitate body temperature—and churned to mimic digestion. The resulting liquid is then put through a series of funnels, allowing any larvae to settle at the bottom. When the process is complete, researchers use a microscope to see if the liquid contains trichinella larvae.

Sharon Edmunds, a senior research advisor with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., says one polar bear tested last winter highlighted the importance of meat testing. “It contained hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of larvae,” she says. “The plate was swimming with them. When we saw that, it became very real.”

Results are now immediately forwarded to the Nunavut health department, which issues public safety warnings if testing reveals an animal is infected.

In order for the program to work, public education is key, Edmunds says. The animal’s tongue is required to perform the test, so hunters who harvest several animals need to be able to keep track of which tongue came from which animal. During peak walrus hunting season from September to November, this becomes especially important. “It’s entirely possible we could have a hunter bring in bags of five to 10 individual walrus tongues,” says Shirley.

Iqaluit and Cape Dorset send samples in the most often, but with more data from other communities, researchers can begin to identify geographical “hot spots” where trichinella infection is more likely. Over time, the information will allow both scientists and hunters to better understand the parasite, which is good news for country food consumers. “We want people to continue eating it. It’s so nutritiously dense, it’s so connected to culture,” Edmunds says. “We live in a food insecure territory. We want people to keep on eating country food.”

Using science to help, rather than hinder, traditional activities has always been a difficult balance to strike in Nunavut. Researchers, governments and harvesters sometimes clash, such as when determining the territory’s polar bear hunting quotas. Quotas are based on population estimates performed by researchers, but the hunters who know the land say estimates are too low and that quotas should be increased. The trichinella-testing program is an example of how modern science can be used to reinforce traditions.

For Kathleen Hanson in Iqaluit, knowing the igunaq she eats is safe means she can enjoy one of her favourite traditional foods. “I worry about trichinosis, but I know that makers get the meat tested,” she says. “I live in Iqaluit and only buy from certain people who are trustworthy or highly recommended.”

And as more harvesters throughout Nunavut submit samples for testing, lovers of fermented walrus will find even more comfort when consuming their comfort food.