Planned cuts to food scrutiny questioned

Ottawa's proposal to give industry greater responsibility for meat inspection will make future recalls more likely, professor says.

A major meat recall by a Toronto packing plant has ensnared the Harper government in a controversy over food safety on the eve of a possible federal election.

Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter and other opposition MPs are demanding answers from Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz over a leaked cabinet document that outlines plans to give the food industry a greater role in the inspection process.

The document also spells out plans to cut millions in federal spending on surveillance for mad-cow disease.

While the plans have yet to be approved, critics say they would leave Canadian consumers more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses such as the current outbreak of listeriosis, caused by the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium.

Ann Clark, a plant agriculture professor at the University of Guelph, said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's plans to give industry a greater role in food inspection would make food recalls more likely.

"No question about it," she said. Dr. Clark said the problem of food safety has become almost "not fixable" because of the food industry's massive scale.

"That's not to say that a small butcher can't make mistakes, but at best, he's going to kill off a few of his neighbours. When you take that same mistake and you put it into a plant that serves millions, the risk is vastly expanded," she said.

The government's plans came to light in July after reports that CFIA biologist Luc Pomerleau had been fired for sending the cabinet document to his union. The seven-page document, marked confidential and stamped May 6, 2008, had been left on a shared server where it could be viewed by a wide number of public servants.

The Commons agriculture committee held special hearings this week in response to reports about the contents of the document. Opposition MPs approved a motion demanding the government table the document, but Mr. Ritz has so far refused. The minister issued a statement this week accusing the Liberals of "irresponsible political rhetoric" and added they are insulting Canada's internationally recognized food safety system.

The Globe and Mail obtained a copy of the document. It consists of a letter from Treasury Board Secretary Wayne Wouters to CFIA president Carole Swan, followed by a table of proposed spending cuts. The agency is asked to cut 5 per cent of its budget as part of a government-wide "strategic review." However, unlike many other departments required to undergo the same process, the agency is promised in the document that the government will return the savings to it for new spending priorities.

Among the 13 areas proposed for cuts is meat inspection: "Shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks," the document states.

Mr. Wouters writes: "the announcement of these reallocations has been deferred owing to significant communications risks and to allow for further policy and communications work to be completed."