Canada

Liberals blast Tory call for decreased government role in food inspection

A government proposal allowing the food industry to police itself would lead to more recalls as businesses cut corners, key members of the Liberals said Thursday amid a nationwide outbreak of a dangerous food-borne bacterial infection.

A government proposal allowing the food industry to police itself would lead to more recalls as businesses cut corners, key members of the Liberals said Thursday amid a nationwide outbreak of a dangerous food-borne bacterial infection.

But the Harper government won't say if it's planning sweeping changes that would transfer food inspection powers from government to industry.

A secret cabinet document leaked last month suggested the Conservatives want to hand over inspection duties to industry.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion told reporters in Toronto the Tories backing the plan are the same ones who were at the helm of Ontario's Conservative government during the tainted water crisis in Walkerton, which left seven dead and more than 2,000 seriously ill.

Dion singled out Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Environment Minister John Baird and Health Minister Tony Clement as "the same people … who are responsible [for] what happened in Walkerton."

Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter accused the Tories of downloading responsibility for food inspection onto industry as a "cost-saving measure."

Concerns about self-policing

The Tory plan could lead to more food-safety problems during economic slowdowns as businesses tighten their belts and scrimp on inspections, he said.

"I don't think there's any question about it," he said.

"If you … download responsibilities to industry itself, so that they would be self-policing themselves, that would lead to greater problems within our food system."

Word of the Conservatives' plan leaked last month following reports the Canadian Food Inspection Agency fired one of its biologists for sending a secret cabinet document to his union.

Luc Pomerleau apparently found the document on a public server where it could be viewed by any agency employee.

Reports said the plan would also cut producers' funding to test cattle for mad cow disease, or BSE.

The Commons agriculture committee held special meetings this week after the document's contents were reported in the media.

The plan has not yet been approved.

Role of government

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz suggested the Tories want industries to play a greater role in inspecting their own products.

"As opposed to having our inspectors standing line-by-line, they'll have a more oversight role within the plant itself," he said.

The new inspection system the agency is implementing should pinpoint contamination issues before products leave the plant, Ritz said.

He spoke amid concern over a countrywide outbreak of a dangerous bacterial infection that has left at least one person dead and more than a dozen ill.

Officials have yet to establish a link between the outbreak of listeriosis and a massive recall of packaged meat products made at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. Nevertheless, the outbreak  has prompted fresh scrutiny of the government's plan and divided food safety experts.

University of Guelph professor Ann Clark, who has testified before the agriculture committee, said industry's main goal is to make money, not provide a public health service such as food inspection that has historically fallen to governments.

Small plants have smaller problems

The food industry's massive scale means recalls potentially affect millions of people, she said.

"If that same mistake had been made in a small, local abattoir or bakery or canning plant … at worst, you're going to kill off a few neighbours."

But food safety expert Doug Powell said companies are likely to diligently inspect their products since no one wants a recall associated with their name.

Powell, of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, said governments are "not the be-all and end-all of food safety knowledge."

"Government's there to set some standards and some level of accountability," he said.

"The supply chain, from farm right through to retailer or restaurant often have far higher standards than government minimal standards."

Food and Consumer Products of Canada, a national industry group, declined to comment.

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