Opposition MPs hammered the Conservative government again Tuesday over taking nearly two weeks to warn consumers about tainted meat now being recalled across the country.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae launched repeated questions about Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and how the meat made it to grocery store shelves. Ritz wasn't in question period to answer.

"On the 25th of September, the minister of agriculture said that contaminated meat did not make its way onto grocery shelves," Mulcair said. "But it was on the shelves. Yesterday the Conservatives tried to blame officials."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the government has added 700 new inspectors since 2006. Ritz said in a written statement that that includes 170 meat inspectors.

"Since the first reports of the contamination on the 4th of September, the agency acted in order to restrict access to this food and they have continued to act up until now," Harper said.

Officials say they were alerted on Sept. 4 to a positive E. coli test in beef shipped to the United States, but recalls in Canada didn't start until Sept. 16.

Opposition, government fire numbers at each other

Both sides of the House threw out numbers to try to prove their points about who is responsible for the recall that has now hit 1,500 products.

While Harper said his government has hired 700 inspectors since 2006, a government official speaking to CBC News on background said many of those hired were replacing people who had retired. A spokesman for CFIA says those 700 inspectors are on top of the inspectors hired to cover replacements, but couldn't say how many inspectors are devoted to slaughterhouses. 

Mulcair said the government has cut the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's budget by $46.6 million and laid off 314 people. Those cuts, however, aren't set to take place for another two years. The report Mulcair cited, the Report on Plans and Priorities for CFIA, also notes that most of the reason for the decrease in spending is because funding set aside for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and pork industry recovery has run out.

Previous reports, in fact, show the government increased funding to $689 million in 2010, up from $597 million in 2009, and to $744 million in 2011.

The 2012-13 report shows that total staff at CFIA has decreased by 185 from last year.

Money spent specifically on food safety was expected to be $356 million in 2011-12 — up from $324 million the year before.

The government plans to cut that to $338 million by 2014-15 — a cut of $18 million over the next two years.

Canadians owed answers

Canadian inspectors also had a positive E. coli test in a shipment that went to a small plant in Calgary on Sept. 4, which was part of the same shipment out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks.

There have been five confirmed cases of illness linked to a Costco store that sold meat from XL Foods, and five other cases under investigation. 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency temporarily suspended the company's license on Sept. 27.

Canadians are owed answers about how meat tainted with dangerous E. coli bacteria made it to store shelves in every Canadian province and territory, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote said Tuesday.

Valeriote says he wants the House agriculture committee to study the E. coli breakout in meat processed by XL Foods in Brooks, Alta.

"It is deeply troubling that the minister responsible for food safety, [Agriculture Minister] Gerry Ritz, continues to defend our food inspection system, even though it completely failed to detect tainted meat before it left the plant," Valeriote said in a news release.

"How did our food safety system fail so dramatically in this case? Why did it take so long for Minister Ritz to warn Canadians and issue a recall? ... How have recent cuts to food inspectors affected Canada's ability to avert such a crisis?"

Valeriote wants the agriculture committee to call Ritz to appear before MPs. He also wants to hear from:

  • Richard Arsenault, CFIA's director of the meat inspection program.
  • Bob Kingston, the head of the union that represents CFIA inspectors.
  • Officials from the Department of Agriculture, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
  • Representatives of XL Foods.

Much of question period on Monday was devoted to NDP and Liberal questions to the government over why it took two weeks to pull the meat.

The Senate agriculture and forestry committee will start hearing witnesses on a food inspection and safety bill Thursday. Bill S-11 consolidates a number of food-specific inspection acts and aligns inspection and enforcement power.