Friday, August 29, 2008

Conservatives wanted LOWER listeria standards

Stephen Harper and Gerry Ritz are talking tough now about strengthening our food safety system, after a listeria outbreak has led to the death of at least 15 people. And Tony Clement is down in Denver making macabre jokes. But before? Before the crisis they were doing everything they could to weaken the system:

OTTAWA — The Canadian government strongly opposed tougher U.S. rules to prevent listeria and lobbied the United States to accept Canada's more lenient standards, internal documents reveal.

Briefing notes prepared by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for an April 7, 2006, meeting with the board of directors of the Canadian Meat Council outline how both industry and the Canadian government were frustrated with the increased precautions the United States was demanding.

Specifically, Canada opposed daily inspection visits and the testing of finished products for Listeria monocytogenes.

Further, the documents show the CFIA agreed to the meat packing and processing industry's request to end a 20-year-old practice of having inspectors issue reports and rankings on facilities. The Canadian Meat Council complained the reports were ending up in the hands of reporters through the Access to Information Act, leading to bad coverage.

Yes, we wouldn't want the media to find out which plants were failing inspections and not meeting standards, would we? They would tell the public, and the public might decide to buy their food from the safer plants, forcing the bad plants to either improve or go out of business.
That would be...wait a minute, isn't that exactly how the free market is supposed to work?

The government documents indicate Canada's meat producers were frustrated that they must add more stringent safeguards to their production lines when producing meat for export to the U.S. market.

"Industry would prefer a single set of standards for both the Canadian and American market," states the document prepared by Dr. Richard Arsenault of the CFIA, anticipating what meat council board members would tell CFIA at the meeting. "[The CMC] will also express their frustration about the recent [United States Department of Agriculture] imposition of product testing for Listeria monocytogenes and of daily visits in U.S.-eligible meat processing plants."

When it comes to something as fundamental as food safety, we shouldn't strive for the lowest common denominator. And in certainly seems in hindsight like more listeria testing would have been wise. If we need to harmonize standards, and given the heavily export-driven nature of our economy I think that makes sense, shouldn't we harmonize to the highest standard?

Gerry Ritz thinks, after the crisis has erupted:

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is responsible for the CFIA, hinted this week that Canada might move toward U.S. practices of preventing listeria, such as the pasteurization of packaged meat.

But before the crisis his department was taking a different track:

But the documents reveal the CFIA lobbied the United States to adopt Canada's rules.

"The CFIA is working at bilateral levels to convince the USDA that its system is equivalent to theirs in order to minimize the need for extra import rules," the document says.

It's easy for Stephen Harper and Gerry Ritz to say now, after 29 confirmed cases of listeriosis and the death of 15, that they support higher standards. But these documents and the documents released previously show their true thinking on the matter.

It's their thinking then, before a crisis erupted, before the public and media glare was on them, that showed their true judgment. And they had it completely wrong. They're only now being shamed into stronger action by the glare of the public spotlight, following the eruption of a food safety crisis.

On how many more issues, on how many more matters that have yet to become a crisis, have they and are they now executing this same bad judgment? On how many more issues, on how many of the little, every-day decisions of governing that are so impactful on the country, are they donning they applying their ideological mantras to their decisions instead of governing in the best interests of all Canadians?

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Joseph said...

Wow! You are all over this.

Are you a journalist?

Do you want to be one?

Ah, actually, even as a type this, I realize you are. I guess bloggers are where the investigative reporters went, as newspapers - with a few exceptions (very few) - edge closer and closer to infotainment.

wilson said...

Curious how Maple Leaf DID meet the US tougher standards, and yet, produced tainted meat.
(see last couple of paragraphs in the article)
Yet those companies that do NOT export to the US,
therefore follow 'weaker' Canadians standards,
have not killed anyone.

Maple Leaf took FULL responsibility,
said the Canadian food system is safe,
that they alone are responsible,
looks like that is the case.

But if you want to get the entire Canadian population fearing our food supply,
just to score political points, knock yourself out.

wilson said...

'''The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not backed down from its requirement that all producers of ready-to-eat meat must pasteurize or boil products in the package to kill Listeria monocytogenes, add chemicals to prevent the bacteria, or allow more rigorous plant inspections. It was unclear yesterday which option Maple Leaf took to comply with U.S. standards.

However, it does not appear those higher U.S. standards were enough to prevent the current outbreak.'''

900 ft Jesus said...

Right on!

This should be an election issue. The recent outbreak is indicative of a much larger problem - the one you clearly point out. The world is at greater risk now with populations on the rise, tainted soil, and warming climates. We should be moving toward stricter safety measures, not away from them.

It’s so messed up how companies can’t even see how their whiney arguments against regulation and inspections expose some of the very reasons we need them (the press might find out)

Mushroom said...

The Globe article did not mentioned the Conservative government members by name. What it showed was that the CFIA was sensitive to the lobbying efforts of the Canadian Meat Council. It was in early 2006 so it would be Chuck Strahl who was Agriculture Minister at that time. Note also there was a "mad cow" outbreak in Alberta and the Canadians were anxious to get the US to take our beef.

Don't know if there is a fundamental shift in political direction in the turnover between the Martin and Harper administrations. It was not mentioned in the article you are referring to. Waiting for the juicier details.

Still the Globe seems to have a box of stuff that can embarrass the Harper Cons.

A BCer in Toronto said...

joseph, in fairness I've just been highlighting the work of the investigative journalists at papers like the Globe, and adding my own commentary.

wilson, i don't care how much responsibility the company takes, the fact is the CFIA and the government have an important role to play here, and as a taxpaying citizen (and a meat eater) I'm not comfortable with the decisions they've been making on my behalf. Government can't abdicate its responsibility here to the private sector.

900ft, I think this will be an election issue, and it won't be in isolation. From this issue, to nuclear safety, and more, the Cons have proven themselves willing to put their de-regulation, industry knows best conservative ideology ahead of public safety. Canadians won't accept that.