Conservative Leader Stephen Harper again defended his government's handling of the recent listeriosis crisis Wednesday, saying the Tories have acted to improve Canada's food inspection system since finding out officials were told of serious problems in the system three years ago.
A 2005 internal report by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency documented problems with some of the CFIA's food inspection procedures, delays in issuing public warnings about potentially dangerous food products and a lack of follow-up after problems were identified.
The agency's Food Emergency Response Review was conducted from January to March 2005 by the CFIA's corporate planning, reporting and accountability branch. The review was obtained using the federal Access to Information Act as part of a joint CBC News/Toronto Star investigation into food safety.
Speaking in Vancouver on Wednesday, Harper said the report was conducted under the previous Liberal government, which didn't act on its findings.
The Conservative leader insisted his government has already taken action by modernizing the inspection system and hiring 200 new inspectors and will conduct a "comprehensive" inquiry into the listeriosis outbreak.
"We are aware of deficiencies, and that's why we're acting and investing, both putting money [into the system] and looking very carefully at our processes as we go forward," he said.
"The previous government was aware of some of these deficiencies, [but] they didn't act. We have been acting."
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion countered that the Conservatives were to blame for inaction during the minority government's past 2½ years.
He said inspectors have been examining "paper instead of the meat," and repeated that under a $50-million Liberal food safety plan, the number of inspectors nationwide would be increased by 100.
Opposition parties have accused Harper and the Conservatives of cutting funds for the food inspection agency's staff and mismanaging the recent outbreak of listeriosis, a food-borne disease that has been linked to the deaths of at least 18 people across Canada.
Harper has dismissed calls for the firing of federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who was forced to apologize after it was revealed last week that the minister had cracked jokes about the outbreak while he was on a conference call with scientists and political staffers.
NDP Leader Jack Layton demanded earlier in the campaign that Harper "show real leadership" and fire Ritz. He also said his party would place a federal food inspector on the floor in every one of Canada's roughly 800 meat-processing plants and reverse spending reductions on staffing.
Harper takes aim at NDP in B.C.
Harper is expected to shift the focus of his campaign strategy to attack the NDP instead of the Liberals in an attempt to woo B.C. voters, said the CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the election.
"The polls show that the NDP is surging in British Columbia so certainly expect that [NDP Leader] Jack Layton will be his target, " she said Wednesday.
Harper has criticized the NDP for voting against the $1,200 annual child benefit and GST cuts passed by his government.
Liberals must enter 21st century: former party president
Dion has stated he is focused on the Liberals winning the election and serving as prime minister, but the assertion comes amid criticisms from the party's former president that the Liberals are no longer relevant to Canadians.
In a commentary published in the National Post on Wednesday, Stephen LeDrew wrote that the Liberals need a "near-death experience" to ensure their survival.
The campaign has become bogged down by its leader, platform and a team that seems to have "all its oars pulling on the same side of the boat," LeDrew's editorial states.
The real work for the party will begin after the polls close on Oct. 14, states LeDrew.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May had a busy day on her whistle-stop rail tour as she makes her way through Ontario. She was scheduled to stop in Capreol, Sudbury, Parry Sound and Washago, before concluding her day at Toronto's Union Station.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe spent the day campaigning in Montreal.