Technology & Science

CMAJ slams Conservatives' move to self-monitoring in meat industry

The current government's policies on public health mean Canada may be less prepared than in the past for an influenza pandemic, outbreaks of listeriosis and other epidemics, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said Tuesday.

The current government's policies on public health mean Canada may be less prepared than in the past for an influenza pandemic, outbreaks of listeriosis and other epidemics, the Canadian Medical Association Journal said Tuesday.

An editorial in the journal criticizes the Conservative government's policies, and an accompanying news article reports that changes to meat inspection rules that took effect in April mean contamination at meat processing plants may no longer automatically result in a shutdown. 

The changes came to light in a leaked chapter of an updated version of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's manual on meat inspections.

"The current government's policies have contributed to the unravelling of public health safeguards, with the move to self-inspection by industry and the lack of an independent public health officer," the journal said in a news release.

"The listeriosis epidemic is a timely reminder that the Harper government has reversed much of the progress that previous governments made on governing for public health," the lead editorial said.

For example, Harper eliminated the Public Health Agency of Canada's ministerial seat in cabinet, the creation of which was one of the recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health.

Since the chief medical officer remained a civil servant working under the health minister, "it left our country without a national independent voice to speak out on public health issues, including providing visible leadership during this [listeriosis] crisis," the editorial said.

Harper has called an "independent investigation" into the listeriosis epidemic that has killed at 16 people. But the editors said that under the terms of reference:

  • The investigator will not have the power to subpoena witnesses or documents.
  • The investigation will not be public.
  • There is no commitment to publishing the findings or reporting to Parliament.

Such flaws will make the investigation inferior compared to those that probed Canada's tainted blood scandal, the Walkerton tainted water crisis and the SARS epidemic. Those inquiries made governance and medical recommendations to better protect Canadians, the editorial said.

Changes have caused confusion about inspection procedures

There is now ambiguity over procedures and confusion about how often to take meat samples for microbial testing and how long companies have to notify inspectors, the journal article quoted Bob Kingston, president of the Agricultural Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, as saying.

Previously, the food inspection agency's manual called for sampling at least twice per year, but inspectors don't yet know whether or not that still applies, Kingston said.

The leaked chapter of the manual described microbiological requirements as "currently under development."

According to the article some food safety experts say private companies are more likely to prevent food crises and create new technologies and safety protocols than meat inspectors who look at carcasses for signs of disease rather than testing for bacteria.

The editorial was written by Amir Attaran, Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy at the University of Ottawa, and journal editors Dr. Noni MacDonald, Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, Barbara Sibbald, Dr. Ken Flegel, Dr. Rajendra Kale and Dr. Paul Hébert.