Conservative deregulation endangers Canadians

After inheriting a food safety system that it knew was in transition and under-resourced, the conservative government of Stephen Harper made a clear choice to cut funding levels and advance its ideologically-driven deregulation agenda over its solemn duty to protect the health and safety of Canadians.

On August 23, the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed that an outbreak of the food-borne bacteria Listeria Monocytogenes had been traced to a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto. By October, the outbreak had claimed 20 lives. As the public demanded answers, the government issued gag order to officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The empty officePlaying out against the backdrop of the recent federal election, the conservative government resorted to evasions, finger-pointing and the promise of a limited independent investigation — anything to distract and deflect criticism for its responsibility for the deadly listeriosis outbreak.

However, like the wise-cracking Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz, who was caught making puerile jokes that demonstrated a callous and calculated partisan concern about the optics of the crisis and its potential political impact rather than any genuine interest or concern for the victims of the food-borne illness, Stephen Harper’s conservative government can run, but it can’t hide.

Abundant evidence shows that the government clearly chose to allow the meat processing industry to police itself with disastrous consequences, while simultaneously sidelining inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Strategic review

In 2007, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was selected to undergo the Harper government’s “strategic review” process – in other words, it was directed to cut five per cent from its operating budget. This directive came about despite the existence of a 2005 internal review conducted by the Agency itself that uncovered policy deficiencies with respect to the conduct of risk assessments, recall protocols and methods for dealing with repeat offenders.

This directive also came about with the knowledge that funding for food safety programs was to be subjected to additional cuts of 30 per cent over the period 2006/7 to 2010/11. Nevertheless, the cut/strategic review played as good news in the government’s February 2008 Budget, which seems to imply on page 254 that the CFIA could afford a five per cent cut because it “is transforming the way it performs its core role, so that it can pursue smarter ways of managing risks to human and animal health.”

The Budget line items – some with dollar figures attached – are also illuminating. For example, the budget boasts that $17 million saved from equipment purchases no longer required by the CFIA will be directed towards the government’s “Food Safety Action Plan.” On the other hand, no monetary value is attached to a line item that reads “take advantage of private sector innovation to strengthen oversight.” Evidently, the private sector’s strengthened oversight is free.

Industry to manage key risks

The government’s Food Safety Action Plan, which was unveiled early in 2008, consisted of proposed legislative and policy changes aimed at modernizing food and product safety. The government’s deregulation agenda is apparent in the stated objectives of the plan, one of which states that food safety problems can be prevented by “enhancing authority to require industry to implement food safety controls to prevent problems.” Since the plan was introduced, the two controversial bills that formed the centre piece of the plan — C-51 and C-52 – have died on the order paper. However, the food safety “program measures” introduced by the government remain.

Some of these program measures came to light in May when CFIA staffer Luc Pomerleau happened upon a Treasury Board document insecurely posted on a CFIA server. The document outlines the results of the strategic review and numerous areas where cost savings were to be realized. Of particular interest to Pomerleau was the item noting the savings to be realized from the “shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks.”

In fact, the shift had already taken place. As Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston explains, on April 1 the final elements of the ongoing effort to harmonize Canada’s inspection regime with those of our major trading partners – including the United States – came into effect. Over the last few years, Kingston explains, Canada has been under pressure to implement an internationally-recognized quality control system called Hazard Analysis at Critical Control Points (HACCP). This quality control program operates on the principle of demonstrated compliance with rigorous standards, certification and audit practices, in other words, it operates like other similar quality assurance programs, i.e. ISO 9000 etc.

New requirements, less resources

Before April 1, CFIA inspectors were permitted to reference the HACCP as a template and as an aid to their inspections and their own inspection techniques and protocols. However, as of April 1 they were required to verify a facility’s compliance with the HACCP – a significantly different job. This meant that instead of relying on their own tests and inspections, that inspectors now were auditing records of tests and procedures carried out by the facility itself according to the requirements of the HACCP. Anecdotal reports from inspectors since listeriosis tainted meat was sourced to Maple Leaf’s Toronto plant say they are understaffed, stretched too thin and buried in new paperwork demands. In fact the inspector assigned to the Maple Leaf plant that was the source of the contamination is reported to be responsible for six other facilities and – like other inspectors – constantly faced with competing demands to inspect facilities or complete paper audits of a facility’s compliance efforts.

Understaffed and underresourced is a bad combination in and of itself, but the situation was made more critical with the introduction of a new system. Normally, says Kingston, when the stakes are as high as they are, there is more overlap to allow for redundancy when there is such a big systems change. That didn’t happen here. “CFIA was under relentless pressure to meet deadlines and also to cough up resources.” The CFIA is not the culprit says Kingston. “If its system is operating properly it would be the best on the planet, unfortunately, it has had to operate in an era of cutbacks on a shoe-string budget.”