Chris Hall: Whom should we trust with food safety?

Too pro-industry? Is Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz the right person to oversee food inspection in this country? the CBC's Chris Hall asks.

It was just a few days ago that the federal cabinet minister responsible for food safety in this country told reporters he wasn't at all worried about the roast beef he'd eaten for lunch.

"I don't know where it came from,'' Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said. "I don't care. I know it's safe.''

Ritz may not care, but for consumers right across the country, this is a question of tremendous concern.

There are five cases of confirmed E. coli illness in Alberta linked to beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta.

More than 1,600 products from the plant have now been removed from store shelves, some were taken out as recently as Wednesday.

The company's plant in Brooks remains shut down as officials try to determine how contaminated meat could have made it through the food inspection system and wound up on somebody's supper plate.

Calgary butcher Clayton Colliou touts the safety of his meat in a fire sale earlier this week. It didn't come from the shuttered XL plant. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

On the political front, questions about food safety have dominated question period for two weeks, sparked an emergency debate Wednesday night in the Commons and led to calls for an independent inquiry.

For the Conservative government, answering those questions has become a political imperative as the recall spreads and more suspected cases of contamination arise.

This is food, after all. It affects consumers directly. It's an issue Canadians relate to at the most basic level. You are what you eat, as they say.

Underlying all the rhetoric is a growing challenge to the government's carefully tended reputation for managerial competence.

Just four years ago, a Listeria outbreak in cold cuts was blamed for the deaths of more than 20 people, and another 57 cases of food poisoning.

Opposition MPs are demanding to know how this kind of widespread meat contamination could happen again, so soon after that last outbreak, and why the first warnings of E. coli contamination appeared to come from U.S. inspectors and not the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

They're blaming the government's cost-cutting agenda for endangering Canadians' health.

How safe?

The job of defending the government's record and the integrity of Canada's food safety regime, once again falls to Ritz, the minister who had to apologize for referring to the Listeria outbreak as ''death by a thousand cold cuts.''

His early responses to the current E. coli scare were less insensitive, but no more reassuring.

Ritz insisted the opposition questions were ill informed. He said no contaminated beef made it to store shelves. And his early answers seemed more concerned with getting meat back into stores — and back into the U.S. market — than with finding the cause.

"CFIA's done an exemplary job,'' he told the Commons early last week. ''We are in day-to-day conversation with them on the status of the recall and on the work forward to get back into that lucrative American market.

"I reiterate. None of the product made it to store shelves. No illnesses have been linked back to this strain of E. coli, so we've actually done a tremendous job.''

By Wednesday of this week those assertions were in tatters, and it was a sombre Ritz who briefly faced reporters after visiting the XL plant in Brooks.


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The contrast in his tone — and message — was striking.

''I want to personally ensure that everyone, from the executive team in Ottawa to the in-depth review team in Brooks, understand that the health and safety of Canadians and their families is our first priority as government. Canadians expect no less.''

Those words didn't satisfy the opposition. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Ritz learned nothing from the 2008 listeriosis outbreak: "He's had four years to make your beef safe. He has failed.''

A bias towards industry?

But affixing blame may be the easy part. The real challenge will be identifying exactly what went wrong and how to fix that.

CFIA president George Da Pont said his agency asked for the plant's records as soon as the positive E. coli test was registered but couldn't get the documents for days. Why was that? Why don't companies jump the moment a federal regulator asks?

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announcing the government's proposed new food safety bill in June. What took so long?

The government now says that its proposed legislation, the Safe Food for Canadians Act, which will be debated in the Commons after next week's break, will give the agency more power to compel documents inside processing plants, and to impose heavier fines for failure to comply.

Why wasn't that done years ago, in the wake of the Listeria outbreak? And before the government made its $46-million cut to the CFIA budget in the spring?

Some government insiders worry that the default position of the CFIA is to favour the industry over the consumer and, if that is the case, it clearly must change.

The other important question is whether Ritz and his department — who have a mandate to promote Canadian agriculture and food products — are the right ones to oversee food safety.

The country has had this discussion before. To many people, it's an insurmountable conflict to both promote the Canadian beef industry and police it.

Some argue it's better to shift responsibility for CFIA to Health Canada.

In the meantime, just having more inspectors around may not be the simple solution some are calling for.

CFIA hired 170 new inspectors in the past four years, and had 46 staff at the XL plant alone, Ritz said. And still, contaminated meat made it through.

The country's second-largest beef processor is now out of production. Millions of kilograms of meat have been recalled. Large sums have been lost and consumers across the country have had their confidence shaken.

A waiter at an Ottawa restaurant smiles as he patiently waits out the question.

"All of our beef is locally produced,'' he says when the customer finally finishes. "It's not from Alberta.''

Gerry Ritz would do well to pay attention to that answer.