Listeriosis: A wake up call for Canada's food inspection system?

Mad Cow Disease was the wake up call for the United Kingdom's food safety system. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's government cut back on public services to reduce costs, the meat industry became more centralized, and using rendered Scrapie-infected sheep seemed like a good way to get cheap protein for cattle feed. The horrible, tragic and disturbing deaths of young people who contracted variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) after eating hamburgers from diseased animals shocked and angered the British public--and virtually destroyed the British beef sector. The British government's response at the time focussed on public relations in the domestic sphere and attempts to shore up export markets by downplaying and even withholding information about infected herds from importing countries.

Today, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency exhibits many of the same weaknesses that led to the collapse of public confidence in the UK food system: the responsible agency had a conflicting dual mandate of protecting public safety while promoting trade and commercial interests, it lacked transparency, and it was housed within the agriculture minister's portfolio.

The current trend in Canadian federal regulatory policy has heightened our vulnerability to food-borne illness by shifting to increased industry self-regulation and de-regulation. The "Smart Regulation" agenda, initiated by the Chretien government and maintained under the Martin and Harper governments, has altered the government's role from one which safeguards and protects the public to one which merely manages risks. When new regulatory measures are proposed, the option with least economic impact--rather than the most effective one in terms of public safety -- is chosen. Furthermore, regulations are to mirror US regulations wherever possible in order to facilitate trade, dove-tailing with the food and agriculture harmonization agenda of the North American "Security Prosperity Partnership"-- which Canada joined in 2005 without benefit of Parliamentary debate.

The recent expose of planned, Cabinet-approved cuts to the CFIA's budget by off-loading meat inspection duties onto industry would continue the shift in responsibility for food safety to the private sector, away from public scrutiny and public accountability. The subsequent firing of the employee indicates the CFIA is more committed to secrecy than transparency, further undermining public confidence in our food inspection system.

Our relationship with food is arguably the most intimate relationship in our lives. We absorb food into our bodies where it provides nutrients and energy to keep us alive, active and healthy. The trust we place in those who provide our food is considerable and often unquestioning. The listeriosis outbreak caused by contaminated deli meat produced at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto highlights both the trust we've placed in others and our vulnerability when things go wrong.

In 1997 the Blair government began to overhaul the UK's food inspection system, using a process that involved extensive public input. The resulting Food Standard Agency has consumer safety as its sole purpose. It is independent, operating at arm's length from Ministers and reporting directly to Parliament. It takes a strategic view of food safety and standards across the entire food chain and can publicly state its views on matters related to food and public health. With the new Food Standard Agency the UK's food system is now considered the safest in the world.

Rather than look south to the United States, we in Canada should take our cues from across the Atlantic and emulate the UK's food inspection system before more even lives are lost to contaminated meat products in another Canadian food safety crisis.

Author Cathy Holtslander is a researcher and community organizer for Beyond Factory Farming.

Published September 8, 2008 Southwest Booster, Swift Current, SK