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Behind the tainted meat crisis: Regulation and public health

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Another tainted meat crisis rages in Canada and there are concerns that industry and government have not swiftly and thoroughly applied the lessons learned from previous crises, notably the listeriosis outbreak in 2008. 

During question period on Thursday Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz kept saying that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did take seriously early warning signs of trouble at the giant XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta. 

Ritz kept repeating that the CFIA followed rigorous scientific testing procedures to ascertain whether or not there was, in fact, contamination and when it finally concluded there was a problem, it acted.

The scary part about this, from a lay person's point of view, is that the system seems to be based on a sort of innocent until proven guilty principle. That principle may be appropriate for criminal law. But if there is strong suspicion that some meat might be unsafe to eat, how long should the authorities wait until they take it off the store shelves? Does it have to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? 

Whose rights are paramount here: those of industry or of the folks who eat meat? (Vegetarianism is beginning to sound like a good option, except, of course, that there is also E. coli contamination of lettuce and tomatoes.)

The government does have a bill to reform the food safety system in the Senate, S-11, which both opposition parties agree has some merit. But the opposition worries that the good intentions of that bill may not be matched by adequate financial resources. The government says it is increasing resources. The opposition says that is not true. 


Scenes from a debate

 Much of Wednesday evening's emergency debate in Parliament on the E. coli in meat crisis focused on that difference of view about money matters. It eerily echoed the war of figures Romney and Obama were waging in Denver, at about the same time.

Here are a few scenes from that emergency Canadian debate. 

Liberal MP Frank Valeriote had called for the debate, in the first instance, and he kicked things off.

Frank Valeriote (Liberal) For the second time in four years, we are faced with a major breach in food safety in Canada. The first time, we said never again; but one month ago, we were reminded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency still does not have the resources it requires, and now, once again, people are sick. 

Yesterday, before the Senate committee on agriculture, Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Agriculture Union, expressed his concern that only a small number of inspectors at XL Foods are properly trained to manage the compliance verification system, because there are not enough resources or trained inspectors to cover the time and material for bringing all inspectors up to speed.

We have some of the finest inspectors in the world, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resources ... Clearly, we have seen that the industry ... can no longer be left alone to police itself. 

Malcolm Allen (NDP): To state the obvious, it is déjà vu all over again. . . [A]bout the 170 inspectors out of the 700 and some-odd the government says it has actually put in place: we know, of course, that they are not actually front-line inspectors. The government has a catch-all phrase for what they call them as a category. Indeed, the 170 inspectors are in front-line meat inspection, but not in facilities like XL. They are actually in the ready-to-eat meat program. 

Pierre Lemieux (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture): E. coli cases in Canada have dropped 50 per cent since 2006 ...  It has been said that cuts to CFIA's inspection capacity, specifically the number of inspectors, has contributed to the XL problem and that this food safety issue is a direct result of the agency being under-resourced in this facility. This is false ...

[O]ur government has hired more than 700 net new inspectors since 2006, and we have consistently increased funding for food safety multiple times since 2006, including by $52 million in our last budget alone. 

As we are all aware, our government, in its efforts to reduce the deficit, asked officials to make proposals that could find savings for budget 2012. Did budget 2012 expose Canadians to more food safety risk? Absolutely not, and for the opposition to say otherwise is just wrong. In budget 2012, as I mentioned earlier in my comments, we put forward more than an additional $50 million for food safety. 

Djaouida Sellah (NDP): If our system is so good and if food safety is a priority, why was the Canadian Food Inspection Agency not spared from the budget cuts? Why did the government cut more than $46 million and why were more than 300 positions eliminated? Why will funding for the food safety program be reduced from $355 million in 2011-12 to $337 million in 2014-15? Are we aiming for a middle-of-the-road food safety system? 

 James Bezan (Conservative): Let us talk about the facts. Th[e] [XL] plant used to have 38 meat inspectors, including 6 veterinarians. It went up to 8 veterinarians and a total of 46 inspectors in that facility ... Unfortunately, XL Foods did have some slippage.

Elizabeth May (Green Party Leader): I look at this one plant processing between 2,000 and 5,000 cattle a day, up to 40% of all the beef in Canada, and ask if perhaps the industrialized, concentrated corporate food model is not about food but about corporate profits and we would be better to support local farmers, local abattoirs and local processing.

 Ted Menzies (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance): We have a system in place to deal with the processes we have in place. It is all wonderful to think that we can go back to only providing food for a 10 mile radius around our homes. That would be a bit of a challenge in downtown Toronto.

 The quietly behind-the-scenes 'Red Tape Commission'

 While the public is being treated to this frustrating political back-and-forth on food safety, the government has been quietly proceeding with another, related initiative, almost out of sight.

This Conservative project is something called the "Red Tape Reduction Commission." It consists of a group of Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs, a number of business-people and the president of one lobbying group, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. 

This Commission's purpose seems anodyne enough: to streamline and simplify federal government regulatory processes so that they are not an unnecessary burden on business. 

Some of the ideas the government touts to reduce red tape include such simple and win-win solutions as issuing ten-year passports. It is hard to find fault with that one.

However, in an effort to make government more efficient and business-friendly some worry the Commission (which has no labour, community-level or opposition party members) might throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) issued a news release earlier this week in which it argued that "this partisan commission is seeking to reduce regulatory compliance instead of focusing on keeping Canadians safe from harm."

In the words of PSAC President Robyn Benson: "The listeria food poisoning outbreak and the recent E. coli outbreak in Alberta are just some examples of the real and devastating impact deregulation can have on Canadian lives."

An ironic coincidence

 The government released the Commission’s report just as the E. coli outbreak was hitting the headlines, and in juxtaposition to that event it makes interesting reading.

"There is an element of risk in everything we do," the report says in its executive summary, "from crossing the street to running a business. It has to be recognized, accepted and dealt with."

In its main body the report elaborates on that point: "Taking risks is important for economic and social progress. A society that takes no risk is a society that will not innovate, grow, increase its productivity and raise incomes. Misunderstanding the risks or being overly averse to risk leads to over-regulation."

The pertinent question is: whose risk are we talking about here? In the case of food safety, for instance, who bears the burden of risk -- corporations or consumers?

Ironically, the Commission's report chose to use a food-industry business as an example of how supposedly onerous federal government regulation can be. In this case it was the production of fish not beef, but the CFIA does get mentioned:

"To better understand how the impact of cumulative burden can affect the productivity of individual small and medium-sized businesses, we considered a small aquaculture business. The business has to be registered with the Canada Revenue Agency. It needs operating permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which may trigger involvement by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Environment Canada and Transport Canada. If the company needs specialized workers from other countries, then the owner must deal with the requirements of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.  ..."

"... As the [aquaculture] business operates, the owner needs to file tax forms with the Canada Revenue Agency. He or she has to complete mandatory business surveys from Statistics Canada. Because the business has employees, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada will occasionally need to be contacted for Employment Insurance purposes. Then the entrepreneur has to deal with Fisheries and Oceans Canada on the production side and Health Canada on the food safety side. Because the aquaculture operator will need to feed and keep the fish healthy, he or she will have to get permits from the feed section of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency [emphasis added] and from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency. Meanwhile, Environment Canada will be alert to any discharges into the water or air... Of course, none of these departments or agencies is trying to make life difficult for the owner of the aquaculture company -- or any company. They are trying to manage risks to the public interest as defined by their legislative mandates..."

Foxes in charge of the hen houses?

 There is something refreshing in the government’s endeavoring to make life less complicated for small entrepreneurs. Anyone who has ever wrestled with an HST form can appreciate that.  

What worries PSAC, though, and what might worry the average citizen, is that this red tape reduction process might serve, in part, as a smoke screen for the government's ideologically-based desire to scrap regulations and regulatory processes that are necessary to Canadians' health and safety. 

PSAC points to the current round of federal government cuts.

In the union's words, these cuts "have resulted in regulatory positions being eliminated in beef research, aircraft services and maintenance, food born pathogen research, microbiological and viral disease research, civil aviation programs, aviation and road safety, cereal research, air quality, aquatic ecosystem management and biosphere analysis." 

The Public Service Alliance also cites polling which indicates that Canadians of all political stripes want more, not less, government enforcement to protect the environment, health and safety. The polling indicates that most Canadians do not trust the private sector to regulate itself. 

PSAC is a union, of course, and has an interest in protecting the careers of its members. But in light of the current tainted meat episode, how many of us would choose to put the meat-packing industry in charge of food safety?



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