Monday, November 16, 2009

Harper Government Abandons Responsibility Toward Food Safety

When the Listeriosis crisis that killed 22 Canadians, hit during the last election campaign; Harper's concern was not those deaths, but damage control. Not just damage control because he had all but abolished government inspections of the food industry, but because his minister, Gerry Ritz, thought the whole thing was a joke.

As Bob Fife continues to point out, the comments made by the minister responsible for food safety, should have got him fired. But in Harper's world it just raised his creds. Only the whistleblower lost his job.

We can also see that Duffy himself was trying to move the conversation away from the seriousness of Listeriosis, to the seriousness of political fallout. Mr. Fife was understandably shocked.

And the Harper government's handling of this horrible situation, should be just as shocking.

They went through all the motions. A public apology, promises to hire more meat inspectors; and the appointing of an independent inspector to examine the causes of the crisis and suggest ways to insure it wouldn't happen.

But the whole thing was smoke and mirrors. Ritz still has his job and the Ref-Cons are still completely insensitive to the suffering of others. And the worst of it is. We no longer care.

So to give you something else you won't care about, the report was completed, suggestions were made and Ritz passed the file to one of his staffers. He'd done his job and nothing will change until the next wave of deaths, because Harper now allows plants to inspect themselves; then the cycle will begin again.

Independence of food safety probe questioned
Sarah Schmidt,
Canwest News Service
November 12, 2009

OTTAWA — The federal government has appointed the top bureaucrat at Agriculture Canada to lead Ottawa's overhaul of food safety after an investigation into last year's deadly listeriosis outbreak called for an independent expert to direct the effort.

Sheila Weatherill zeroed in on a "vacuum in senior leadership" among government officials during her sweeping independent investigation earlier this year into the outbreak that cost 22 Canadians their lives.

And in her final report presented to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in July, Weatherill called on the clerk of the privy council, the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister's Office, to appoint an "independent expert" to lead a review involving top bureaucrats at Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to sort out the roles of federal departments and agencies in food safety.

The clerk, Wayne Wouters, has tapped the bureaucratic right-hand of Ritz, John Knubley, to lead the special committee of deputy ministers, said a spokeswoman for the clerk, declining further comment.

Ritz, who is responsible for CFIA and whose president reports directly to him, took the government lead during last year's listeriosis outbreak and promised to implement every recommendation put forward by Weatherill.

In a statement, Ritz said his deputy minister of agriculture is an independent expert on the file, so the appointment means the "recommendation has been fulfilled."

"Privy Council's naming of Deputy Minister John Knubley ensures he is able to independently provide expert analysis that will be reported directly to the Clerk," Ritz said in a statement.

University of Manitoba microbiologist Rick Holley, a member of CFIA's academic advisory panel on food safety, said this is a stretch.

"The perception I think in most circles would be that appointment doesn't give the independence that was intended in the original recommendation by Sheila Weatherill. That's my suspicion here. My preference would be another choice be made."

Holley said the appointment "wouldn't have to be outside" government, but it shouldn't come from within the agriculture ministry, which is tasked with devising policies and programs to achieve security of the food system and whose minister held daily briefings about the government response during the outbreak.

"My preference would actually be to see an appointment from the Auditor General's office. They would not be a party to any of the baggage that currently exists and the difficulties associated between the public health and the food regulatory interface, which in and of itself is a singular problem that needs resolution."

Weatherill also recommended that CFIA, "supported by independent experts," initiate a comprehensive review of the agency's organizational structure and decision-making processes. The public health agency should do the same, Weatherill recommended.

Neither agency responded Thursday to clarify whether the independent experts appointed in these cases are external to government or external to the agency.

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