Thursday, August 28, 2008

Harper and Listeria: The wrong priorities and the wrong leadership for Canada

Can we draw a direct line between the Stephen Harper Conservatives and the listeria outbreak that has killed at least six (and now Quebec cheese is being recalled) in the same way the Walkerton tragedy can be traced back to cuts by the Mike Harris Conservatives? Perhaps not, although there is an argument to be made for "prime ministerial responsibility."

You can say, however, that the listeria situation serves to highlight exactly why Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party are the wrong people to be running this country. It serves to highlight that their ideological motivations and beliefs are in contradiction to the wishes, the desires, and the best interests of Canadians.

Yesterday, Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain fell on his sword, saying its his company that should shoulder the blame for this tragedy:

Also Wednesday, the president of Maple Leaf Foods said his company should bear the responsibility for the distribution of meat that led to the outbreak, effectively absolving the Canadian food safety system of blame.

"This week, it's our best efforts that failed, not the regulators or the Canadian food safety system," Michael McCain said at a separate news conference Wednesday in Toronto.

"I emphasize: This is our accountability and it's ours to fix, which we are taking on fully. We have and we continue to improve on our action plans," he said.

That's all well and good. The company is to blame he says, not the system. Well, the fact is we learned recently that the Harper government wanted to blow-up our food safety system. Harper and Gerry Ritz and Mike Harris-crony Tony Clement wanted to take government out of the equation, and turn responsibility for the safety of our food system over to the industry. To let them police themselves, so to speak.

A government plan to transfer key parts of food inspection to industry so companies can police themselves will put the health of Canadians at risk, according to leading food safety experts who have reviewed the confidential blueprint.

The plan, drafted by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and approved by the Treasury Board, details sweeping changes coming to food inspection in Canada.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also ending funding to producers to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) as part of a surveillance program, the document indicates, a move that is expected to save the agency about $24 million over the next three years.

The new system, part of a push to trim the agency's budget by five per cent, was approved last November, but a public announcement "has been deferred owing to significant communications risks," according to the confidential Treasury Board document obtained by Canwest News Service.

The document, addressed to the president of the agency, details how the inspection of meat and meat products will downgrade agency inspectors to an "oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks."

Leading food safety experts, who reviewed the document, say the plan is a recipe for disaster.

We learned about these secret plans to gut Canada's food inspection system when a public servant blew the whistle and made them public. The government responded by firing the whistle blower, musing about criminal charges, and praising the person that outed the whistle blower. And they're stonewalling a parliamentary committee on the issue.

Speaking of Ritz, he too was insisting yesterday that the government system did its job in the listeria case:

Federal inspectors in charge of overseeing health standards at a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant at the centre of a deadly outbreak of listeriosis were doing their job properly, Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Wednesday.

Ritz, joined by members of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada at a news conference in Ottawa, denied allegations that the federal inspector responsible for the plant was mired in paperwork and was not present on the floor of the plant.

Let's review. Both industry and government say it's industry that fell down here, and the government wasn't to blame. Harper is promising “reforms” to the system.

And what reforms were Ritz and Harper considering before this outbreak? They wanted to hand over the government's role to industry. That's right. They wanted to ax the side that they all say was working, and turn it over to the side they all say failed.

The conservative mantra of industry self-regulation makes no sense, and conservative ideology can't be allowed to dictate food safety policy in this country. Contrary to what Harper, Ritz and Clement were cooking-up, we need a BIGGER role for the CFIA and the government when it comes to food safety inspections, not a SMALLER role. Industry self-inspection is NOT the answer.

I think the CFIA needs to do a much better job. I think it needs to be reformed. But the answer isn't conservative ideology. When it comes to food safety, big government isn't a bad word. REGULATION isn't a bad word. We shouldn't be proposing cuts to the CFIA like the Conservatives. We should be investing more heavily in the CFIA, making sure it has the tools to perform its vital oversight role.

Conservative ideology being applied to arts funding is bad enough. We don't need it applied to something as vital as the safety of our food supply.

We don't know what happened yet, but we know the Conservative cuts are not the answer. I shudder to think what would have happened had the Conservatives had the chance to push these cuts through, and carry out their plan for industry self-policing. That they were even thinking of this is frightening. It's a failure of judgment, and we shouldn't give them another chance to make such a mistake.

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Skinny Dipper said...

I find it interesting that the federal Conservatives think it is all right to let private industry manage more of their inspections while the government does less. Yet, when the provincial Progressive Conservatives were in power in Ontario under Mike Harris, they wanted to ensure that all Ontario's children were up to par in terms of educational achievement. A separate governing agency had to be set up to inspect schools by testing all students.

The Conservatives think it is all right for private industry to inspect themselves but their provincial cousings think that public institutions such as schools and the teachers inside them should have their students fully tested. Let's hope none of the students have listeria/listeriosis or whatever it's called.

Mike514 said...

If I understand your argument, your concern is that greater industry self-regulation could lead to lax quality control and inspections.

To that, I reply with a quote from the Canadian Handbook of Practice for Architects:

The provincial architects act authorizes a provincial association (NOT the gov't) to regulate its members by empowering the ass'n to:
- Set eligibility criteria for becoming an architect
- Set conduct regulations
- Investigate allegations of professional misconduct
(Gasp! Shouldn't that be the government's job???)
- Discipline an architect (Double gasp! How can an architect's association be expected to discipline one of its own architects? For crying out loud!!)

In short, the professionals that design buildings are self-regulated. Can that lead to problems? Yes. Would more government control solve those problems? Probably not.

I realise comparing architects or engineers with the food industry is not black-and-white. For one, architects and engineers are professionals whereas the food industry doesn't have any "professionals" per se.

My analogy also doesn't go far enough, because I haven't discussed general contractors, which take our drawings and physically build the projects.

But to return to your original thesis (as I saw it), self-regulation does not necessarily equal disaster, particularly on something as important as physical infrastructure like the ACC or the Jacques-Cartier bridge.

Now that you know architects and engineers are largely self-regulated, I trust that you'll pee your pants and quake in fear every time you cross a bridge or enter a building, because of that evil conservative self-regulating ideology. If not, I hope you'll have a little more confidence in self-regulated professions, once you realise how many fields (construction for one) are largely self-regulated.

RuralSandi said...

A judicial inquiry concluded that provincial government cutbacks and a policy of privatizing water testing contributed to the Walkerton debacle, in which seven people died and more than 2,300 fell ill.

So, you going to believe the lying Tories or a judicial inquiry? I go with the inquiry.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post!

You really did a great job tying all of the pieces together in one place.

The Rat said...

Whistleblower? Doesn't a "whistleblower" blow the whistle on illegal activity, corruption, say like when Alan Cutler whistled down the sponsorship scandal? This guy didn't "blow the whistle", he leaked secret documents discussing a legal policy discussion THAT HE DIDN'T AGREE WITH. And you wonder why the Cons are leery of the "Public Service" (in quotes because they seem to be the Liberal Service).

As for the listeria outbreak, were current regs followed? Were the proposed changes in place? Yeah, I thought so. Just another looooong stretch to blame the Conservatives for everything. Heck, you'd blame them for winter if you could.

The Rat said...

ps Jeff, did you really say this:

"PS. Anyone wondering about drawing a direct line between the Harper Gov. and this outbreak, well here it is: Maple Leaf foods served as a testing ground for the Tories new "Leave It Out And Let The Free Market Decide If Its Rancid" inspection regime."

'cause it seems BCL is putting something in your mouth and you may not like what it is.

Anonymous said...

When documents are brought forth that directly contradict lies from the agricultural minister on what changes are being made to inspection processes without the public's knowledge, I call the person who brought them to light whistle-blowers.

You can call them whatever you want, but my family doesn't need to hear lies from their government so I'm going to call the people who expose the truth whistle-blowers.

Jeff said...

mike, I'd submit there's a major difference between an architect and the person working the line in a meat packing or production plant. An architect is a highly-trained professional with a substantial education, they're a member of a professional organization that sets and holds its members to high standards. How much does the line worker in a meat plant make? Do they need a university degree? Are they held to strict standards of training and qualification? Frankly, I think you're comparing apples and oranges mike.

rat, you mention Allan Cutler. Here's what Cutler told the Globe earlier this week on this:

Allan Cutler, who was praised by Conservatives for blowing the whistle on the sponsorship scandal, says he is shocked and offended by the Harper government's decision to fire a CFIA biologist last month.

Mr. Cutler, a former federal public servant who challenged the way advertising contracts were being handled in 1995 during the Liberal government of Jean Chr├ętien, received a hero's welcome when he joined the Tory ranks in November, 2005, only to be defeated.

Mr. Cutler is criticizing Mr. Ritz for praising an employee who identified biologist Luc Pomerleau as the source of a politically embarrassing leak. Mr. Pomerleau sent his union a document outlining CFIA plans to transfer some meat-inspection duties to industry.

"We at Canadians for Accountability, a group founded to promote accountability and support whistleblowers, were shocked and offended. Many of us are whistleblowers ourselves," wrote Mr. Cutler.

"An informant is not a whistleblower, and we don't care to be grouped with them."

So former Conservative star candidate Allan Cutler says he's a whistleblower, and is speaking-out for him.

Mike514 said...

Thanks for the response. I admit the link is tenuous, but the point of my post is to make you aware that many industries are in fact self-regulated (industries that you might not even realise or expect).