Mr. Frank Valeriote (Guelph, Lib.)
|| That this House do now adjourn.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Toronto Centre.
For the second time in four years, we are faced with a major breach in food safety in Canada. The first time, we said never again, but one month ago, we were reminded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency still does not have the resources it requires, and now, once again, people are sick.
On September 16, 2012, the CFIA issued a recall of just over 20 different meat products, originating at the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alberta, that were possibly contaminated with E.coli 0157, the same virus that killed seven and poisoned thousands of others at Walkerton, Ontario in 2000. It is a pathogen that when consumed can cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea in most but can go on to attack the kidneys and other organs in vulnerable Canadians, such as seniors and children.
This is a significant date, because the recall occurred two weeks after E.coli contamination was found by American inspectors in a shipment of beef destined for the United States.
On September 3, the Americans positively diagnosed E. coli in an XL Foods shipment after stopping the shipment at the border. On September 4, American inspectors notified Canadian officials that our meat was contaminated, and they held subsequent shipments. On September 13, having found two more contaminated shipments 10 days after their initial finding, the United States Food Safety Inspection Service delisted XL's Brooks, Alberta facility, preventing it from exporting any further meat to the United States.
This brings us to September 16, 13 days after the Americans first found E.coli in a shipment of beef from XL. Our inspection agency's first action to recall tainted meat and protect Canadians from a potentially fatal pathogen took two weeks, which many of the 23 Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan who are now suffering would argue was two weeks too long. Despite the rapidly expanding recall, it still took 10 days after the recall to finally shut down the XL Foods Brooks facility for clear violations of the standards regulating sanitation, health and safety.
Now, one month on from the Americans' first finding, we are still looking for answers. Like the recall, which has grown to more than 1.5 million pounds of meat across 1,500 different products, day after day we only have more questions for a government that appears more interested in managing its public relations risk than in working on the real damage being created by a critical break in our food safety system. When was the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made aware that XL Foods shipped meat contaminated with E.coli to the United States? When was he first aware that the XL Foods facility was no longer meeting minimum sanitation requirements? Why did he argue last week that there was no risk of contaminated product reaching store shelves, when clearly, a recall of 1.5 million pounds of meat, the largest in our history, is not merely a preventive matter?
Conservatives would have us believe that $56.1 million in cuts in the spring budget did not have an impact on the resources available to inspectors or that the hundreds of jobs they cut, including 90 biologists and 140 veterinarians, did not have a negative impact on the speed and efficiency of our front-line food safety workers.
Conservatives would have us believe that regardless of the job they did gutting essential resources this year, they have put enough in over the past five years that it should not matter. Clearly, it does. They answer our calls for more inspectors and more financial stability with derision but refuse to answer these questions: If the resources they gave the CFIA were enough, why are 23 Canadians suffering from food-borne illness related to E.coli? Why has the FSIS shut their borders to meat from XL Foods' Brooks facility? How did the facility get so far behind in meeting whatever food safety standards exist?
In 2008, 23 Canadians died, and hundreds more were sick, after consuming listeria-tainted meat in a situation that is eerily beginning to resemble our current state. In her report stemming from an investigation of what went wrong, Sheila Weatherill found a number of key factors that led to a catastrophic breakdown in inspection and prevention. Among those she pointed out was a major disconnect between senior management of both the industry and the CFIA in their approach to food safety, especially as it pertained to monitoring trends that would assist in identifying recurring bacteria presence.
Notably, as recently as last week, Dr. Richard Arsenault, director of meat inspection at the CFIA, said, “We need to do a better job of managing this data and finding these trends ahead of time…as opposed to having to respond to a crisis like this”, all this so that inspectors might connect the dots.
The second key factor noted by Ms. Weatherill was our state of readiness, or the lack thereof. She was concerned about insufficient training for inspectors, in particular.
Yesterday, before the Senate committee on agriculture, Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Agriculture Union, expressed his concern that only a small number of inspectors at XL Foods are properly trained to manage the compliance verification system, because there are not enough resources or trained inspectors to cover the time and material for bringing all inspectors up to speed.
Ms. Weatherill was concerned that one of the truly fatal flaws during the listeria outbreak was a lack of a sense of urgency at its outset. Concerns about when to notify the public in 2008 were mirrored this month when it took two weeks to notify the Canadian public that there was a threat to their food supply. Ms. Weatherill said: “Until the system is remedied, events like those of the summer of 2008 remain a real risk”.
Despite that being three years ago, here we go again, and her initial concerns still ring true.
Conservatives will tell us that they have fulfilled all the recommendations of the Weatherill report. However, just this year, they removed funding specific to listeria, and they have yet to complete a comprehensive third-party audit of all CFIA resources, including staffing, which she requested as her seventh recommendation.
Allow me to quote Ms. Weatherill further:
|| Due to the lack of detailed information and differing views heard, we were unable to determine the current level of resources as well as the resources needed to conduct the CVS activities effectively. For the same reason, we were also unable to come to a conclusion concerning the adequacy of the program design implementation plan, training and supervision of inspectors, as well as oversight and performance monitoring.
Accordingly, she recommended:
|| To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should retain third-party experts to conduct a resource audit. The experts should also recommend required changes and implementation strategies. The audit should include analysis as to how many plants an inspector should be responsible for and the appropriateness of rotation of inspectors.
To this day, that has yet to be done.
Conservatives will tell us that they acted on each recommendation. However, they cannot tell us how many inspectors they have, what their roles and responsibilities are, or where they are located. In fact, the only study they engaged in was a superficial review of resources available to the compliance verification system.
They will also accuse us of holding up their newest food safety legislation, which dismantles the various inspection acts, including the Meat Inspection Act, by removing specializations and making inspectors jacks of all trades but masters of none. However, they will not say that we support modernizing our food system, so long as it includes the necessary resources.
Furthermore, contrary to statements by their president earlier today claiming that the CFIA does not currently have the power to compel XL Foods to present proper documentation proving compliance, the Meat Inspection Act provides that:
|| [A]n inspector may...require any person to produce for inspection, or for the purpose of obtaining copies or extracts, any book, shipping bill, bill of lading or other document or record that the inspector believes on reasonable grounds contains any information relevant to the administration or enforcement of this Act or the regulations.
Moreover, the act compels the operator of the plant not only to comply but to facilitate the process. Hiding behind the imaginary facade of new, enhanced powers should not let anyone off the hook for this blatant failure to act.
The danger posed by Conservative inaction on the food safety file extends beyond the health and safety of Canadians. It is a threat to our ranchers, who have just started to recover from the BSE ordeal.
Borders across the world have finally reopened to our beef trade. Still, the government is currently attempting to negotiate away the very program that caught our contaminated meat at the border.
We have some of the finest inspectors in the world, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resources, leaving them incapable of performing the necessary functions of their jobs. Clearly, we have seen that the industry, while it can work in partnership, can no longer be left alone to police itself.
In terms of immediate action, will the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food finally consent to a comprehensive third-party audit of the resources necessary to operate the CFIA? Will the government finally agree to give our food inspection agency the powers and resources it needs to keep Canadians safe?
Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Guelph for having moved this motion. I know it was an idea that was shared by the member for Welland. It does give the House a chance to debate a subject of great importance to Canadians.
I want to make a comment in that regard. This is a real concern for consumers. People want to know that their health will never be in danger because the government did not do its job. That is the first thing that needs to be said.
This matter does not affect only consumers, but also Canada's reputation. We live in a world where products like meat are exported to the United States, Europe and Asia. For quite some time now, Canadians have been working hard to maintain a positive reputation around the globe.
This issue also affects the producers of this meat, including those in Alberta and the west, and across Canada. It is a nationwide industry. We believe it is a situation that requires a more tangible and direct response from the government. It is not enough for the government to say that it has appointed 700 inspectors. Besides, 700 were not appointed, but rather 170. The government can appoint 10,000 inspectors, but if the result is the same, then we have a problem.
The government can say it took action, but frankly, it moved too slowly. The American authorities acted a lot faster, for they began refusing products from that plant on September 13. It was not until September 16 that the Canadian government insisted on recalling products that had been sent all over the place. The plant was not closed until last week. The government did not respond appropriately to protect not only Canadian consumers, but also our reputation around the world.
Canadians have to understand that operations like the one in Brooks, Alberta are huge operations. We are looking at thousands of cattle being processed every day. We are looking at hundreds of millions of pounds of meat being dealt with across the country on an annual basis. We are looking at fewer and fewer large slaughterhouses being available for farmers. We are looking at a system that requires and insists that there be an absolutely seamless process of inspection and of assurance that in every step of the way steps are being taken to protect the consumer, the rancher, the producer and those who buy our product. Those who buy our product are not only in Canada, they are around the world.
Every minister of agriculture knows that Canada's reputation is only as strong as our ability to ensure the health and safety of every consumer of this product each and every day. That is why I cannot understand some of the responses we have heard from the government. I cannot understand the performance I saw on television by the Minister of Agriculture. He spoke for four and a half minutes, left the stage and said that he was sorry he had to go. Then as soon as the president of the CFIA stood to speak, the government spokesperson said that the press conference was over.
That is cowardice. How else could we describe a minister who cannot defend himself in the House of Commons, cannot defend the actions of the CFIA in the House of Commons and he goes to Alberta for a photo op and he cannot even defend himself at the photo op? Something has gone clearly wrong.
Yes, we have other examples. We had the listeriosis crisis, which affected the country four years ago. By contrast with what we have seen from XL, Maple Leaf Foods was out there every day, defending itself, explaining, trying to get people to understand the importance because it understood from the get-go that this was about reputation as much as it was about health.
It affects everything including the credibility of the system. Where has XL been? We do not hear from the people at XL. They are not there. When people call the company, they get an answering machine.
This is affecting hundreds of thousands of consumers, and the company says that its responsibility is to disappear. Companies can disappear, but we have seen a disappearing act that matches Houdini by the Minister of Agriculture.
That is something which requires a real response from the government today. Canadians expect better and expect answers. They expect more than a Prime Minister who says that it is a great system and the government has added all the inspectors.
I am sure the minister and the parliamentary secretary will have exactly the same rote responses, that the first priority they have is the protection of consumers. If it is the first priority, why are the consumers the last to know? If the Americans could close the border on September 13, why could we not have done the same thing on the same day?
The government takes great pride in the fact that it is now signing this seamless border agreement with the Americans. What is going to happen to that as a result of this incident? What is going to happen to that when the Americans wake up and realize that the standards we are putting in place are not as strong as we claim they are and are not as good and seamless as we claim they are?
The consumer has to be told much earlier. The public has to know how and why this happened. The government has to come clean with the Canadian public, not giving us press release after press release, not holding photo ops after photo ops. There has to be an understanding that this has happened because something went wrong, not because something went right. This has happened because something was wrong for a long period of time, and consumers were left vulnerable for too long.
The enthusiasm on that side for privatization and deregulation will not deal with this problem. This is a problem which requires robust government capacity, a robust capacity to protect the public interest and a robust capacity to protect the public health.
Yes, the companies have to be involved. Yes, there will never be enough inspectors to cover every situation, every moment. Companies have to be engaged in helping us to deal with this question.
However, the people who are working for the companies need to have the independence and the power to do their jobs. They need to have the training to do their jobs. We have to ensure that this system is clearly and honestly in place.
This is why we believe that in addition to the answers we have been asking for over the last several days, there clearly needs to be a report, very quickly, by the Auditor General of Canada, some independent way of assessing the government statements that all of the recommendations of the Weatherill report have been carried and a real assessment as to how our CFIA compares with inspection in the U.S. and in Europe. We cannot simply be among the best; we can be the best country.
The food industry is an absolutely fundamental industry to our country. I do not think many Canadians understand that for all the publicity about other manufacturing industries, the food industry is at the heart of manufacturing. It is at the heart of prosperity in the country. It connects agriculture and the farmer, the small and the large producers with some of the largest companies in the world. It gives Canada its global reach.
That global reach is only as good as our local reputation. It is only as good as the actions that we in fact take and the assurance that we are as good as our word and that we are up to the job. Right now, that bunch is not up to the job. That is why we have had to call for this emergency debate.
Mr. Pierre Lemieux (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to address the House on the ongoing matter of the beef recall that has been much in the news today. I welcome the opportunity to talk about this issue and to clarify the situation. Let me reiterate that the health and safety of Canadians, particularly when it comes to food safety, is the top priority for this government.
Please allow me to list some of the facts for the record. First, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on September 4 and it has been acting ever since. Second, the XL plant will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified that it is safe. Third, our Conservative government has hired over 700 additional net new inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors and, I might add, with no help from the opposition, which has voted against this and other valuable initiatives to fortify our food safety system.
Fourth, our government has implemented all 57 recommendations from the Weatherill report. Fifth, we have increased CFIA's budget by $156 million, which is a 20% increase and once again, the opposition voted against this. Sixth, we have tabled legislation in the other place, Bill S-11, known as the safe food for Canadians act, to strengthen the authorities under which CFIA acts.
The bill will be coming to the House for debate and voting. If the opposition believes that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, then it should support our government's legislation to make sure that the CFIA has greater authorities. The opposition needs to change the way that it has been voting on food safety issues.
Now that we know the basic facts, let me put it into context. As many are already well aware, XL Foods, which operates an Alberta-based meat processing facility, is implicated in a very substantial recall of beef products. The recall is a result of E. coli 0157:H7 having been found present in products that originate from this facility.
E. coli cases in Canada have dropped 50% since 2006. There is a great deal of information about how to avoid food-borne illness. In the case of E. coli, washing hands, keeping food preparation services clean and cooking food to proper temperature is usually all that is ever needed to avoid getting sick. The fact that this particular producer provides a large amount of beef product to further processors and retailers across Canada and for export to the United States adds to the complexity of this particular situation.
That being said, despite the efforts of the CFIA to provide disclosure and transparency about the events surrounding this issue, there persists a perception, a narrative, if one will, that is at odds with the facts. Last Friday, CFIA experts in food safety and public health held a press conference where they delivered detailed information and informative statements and took many questions from the media. All questions were fully answered.
Furthermore, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website contains detailed information about what happened, where and when. The full chronology is there for all to see. People will also see information such as what the issue is, when it was first discovered, likely factors and actions taken. All of that is available to the media and to the general public.
I appreciate that much of the information being delivered leans to the technical side in terms of detail, so I will try to bring some clarity to the issue. For the record, allow me to share some of the misconceptions that still persist and must be set straight. There is the idea that American inspectors discovered the problem, while the CFIA did not, and that Canada was alerted to the problem solely due to American inspection efforts. This is not true. It was found in Calgary by the CFIA and the CFIA and Americans were communicating with each other about their test results on the same day.
It has been said that cuts to CFIA's inspection capacity, specifically the number of inspectors, has contributed to the XL problem and that this food safety issue is a direct result of the agency being under-resourced in this facility. This is false. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, our government has hired more than 700 net new inspectors since 2006, and we have consistently increased funding for food safety multiple times since 2006, including by $52 million in our last budget alone.
It has been alluded to that our government is shying away from making any positive link between E. coli and beef and certain people who have become sick with E. coli. There has been no such evasion. Five cases have been connected by the Alberta public health authority. As a government, we feel for these people and understand how difficult this situation is.
Going back to the beginning when problems were first discovered, it needs to be understood that the CFIA discovered E. coli in a beef product on September 4. This product, discovered in one establishment, had originated from the XL Foods establishment in Alberta. On that very same day, the CFIA was informed that inspectors working for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or the FSIS, had discovered E. coli in a sample of beef trimmings that had originated from the same XL Foods plant in Alberta.
The CFIA was alerted by the FSIS about the discovery on September 4 and the meat products were destroyed. The CFIA, through a trace out investigation, was able to determine that the meat products found to be positive in the U.S. were not distributed anywhere in Canada. The CFIA immediately launched an investigation into the causes of the problem on September 4. There was no delay.
Canadian and American inspectors had discovered the problem in parallel and that information was shared. The source of Canada's information was our own inspection service turning up positive samples for E. coli in Alberta and the American find served to confirm it. This information can be verified simply by looking at the statements made on both the CFIA and FSIS websites. The idea that had the Americans not found a positive sample, our own inspection service would have missed the E. coli is false, as the problem was uncovered by the CFIA through routine testing.
Throughout the course of the CFIA investigation, inspectors stepped up their oversight of operations within the plant. By September 18, the CFIA determined that there was no single cause that it could link to E. coli-positive meat at the plant. However, there were a number of issues uncovered having to do with some protocols not being strictly followed. These are the sorts of issues that the CFIA discovers from time to time.
XL Foods was informed of these deficiencies and was ordered to correct them before a firm deadline. Based on the in-depth investigation conducted by the CFIA from September 4 through to September 16, it was decided health hazard alerts should be issued to the public. During that time period there was not a single day that the CFIA was not actively investigating the issue on an urgent basis.
By September 16, XL Foods had begun recalling beef trimmings from three days of production from its clients. We must understand that beef trimmings coming out of one facility can go out to many different clients who further process these trimmings into other food products. Some of it might end up as ground beef. Some of it might be turned into fresh or frozen hamburger patties. Some of it could end up in sausages, frozen lasagna, meatballs or soup, and all under different brand names. The food supply system in this particular case is vast.
What we have is the CFIA actively tracing products into the supply chain based on a limited number of specific production dates. The agency tracked down the various companies, food processors, destinations and further processing points that the meat could have gone out to as quickly as possible and then food recalls for those food products were announced. As soon as a product was discovered to have had its origins in a high-risk run of production, it was recalled. As a result, what looked like recall after recall was really just one recall, with the group of affected products expanding as the different companies, processors, product lines and products were identified.
This is the tracing out process. It can take some time to go through various company records in multiple locations with information presented in vastly different formats. When a food recall gets under way the CFIA works literally around the clock to get the products off the shelf as fast and as comprehensively as it can. In fact it is considered to be the best in the world at food recalls.
Through further investigation it was decided, based on data that the CFIA collected, that production runs from two other days showed a higher than usual risk for E. coli and so products originating from these batches of trim were also added to the recall list. On September 27, the establishment's licence was suspended. The suspension resulted from the company being unable to fully implement the corrective actions requested by the CFIA. The suspension followed established agency protocol for when a food producer is unable or unwilling to comply with corrective actions requested by the agency.
Let me be clear. The XL plant will not reopen until the CFIA has certified that it is safe.
The CFIA acted swiftly to address the problem once it was discovered. It was discovered by CFIA inspectors during routine testing. Although it looked like a staggered recall to outsiders because the recall got wider and wider as more information on products became available, it really was a single recall of products produced on five production dates at the facility.
I will now address the budget issue. As we are all aware, our government, in its efforts to reduce the deficit, asked officials to make proposals that could find savings for budget 2012. Did budget 2012 expose Canadians to more food safety risk? Absolutely not, and for the opposition to say otherwise is just wrong. In budget 2012, as I mentioned earlier in my comments, we put forward more than an additional $50 million for food safety. That is what is in budget 2012. That is in addition to $100 million that was in budget 2011. Our government remains committed to ensuring that the food Canadians and their families eat is safe.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not made any changes that would in any way risk the health and safety of Canadians. Contrary to what some have asserted, we have made significant investments in food safety. Recognizing the challenges and opportunities of the current environment, our government's budget last year committed over $100 million over five years for the CFIA to modernize its food inspection system. This included new resources on inspection delivery, training for inspection staff, scientific capacity on food laboratories, and information management and technology. Once again, the opposition voted against all of this.
In the case of this particular XL Foods facility, CFIA inspection staffing levels have actually gone up over the last six years, not down. There are 40 inspectors and six veterinarians assigned full time to the XL facility. That is six more inspectors and two more veterinarians than were assigned there in 2006. In this case in particular, and as a general rule across all of the agency's inspection services, there has been no cut in food safety service delivery. Budget 2012 is not relevant to this food recall and, as I mentioned, there have been additional resources allocated to CFIA through budget 2012.
I will now deal with the issue of illness. The agency has been very transparent about providing to the public all of the information it has around links to recalled food and human illness. At the press conference last Friday, a knowledgeable spokesman from the Public Health Agency of Canada addressed this issue. The PHAC website is being continually updated when information about cases of food-borne illnesses linked to the XL Food recalls becomes known. Further tests are required and it must be firmly established that people who actually ate products originating from this XL facility have been affected. This requires interviews about what people consumed in the recent past and the testing of any food that they may still have in their homes to establish a clear link. This work is done collaboratively by provincial public health agencies, the CFIA and the PHAC. It is a high scientific and evidentiary standard that must be adhered to. Anything less would be speculation and our government is not in the business of speculating on the health of Canadians. We need accurate information to make informed decisions.
We have a strong food safety regime here in Canada and we aim to make it even better with the proposed safe food for Canadians act. This government is committed to making these instances even rarer and to having a robust and efficient recall system when situations like this occur.
Mr. Malcolm Allen (Welland, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleagues for joining in this emergency debate on Canadian food safety. It is an extremely troubling issue that has come back to haunt us once again.
Let me first say that we feel for those who are ill, especially the young one in Alberta who suffered kidney failure and is drastically ill, and whose mom's pleas for help because there was something wrong went unanswered for, in her words, far too long. We on this side of the House would like to extend our best wishes for a speedy recovery to all of those folks who have fallen ill because of E. coli. Hopefully, they will have a speedy recovery with no ill effects in the future.
I would say unequivocally to the ranchers out there that we on this side of the House understand the dilemma they face. The ranchers across the country have done nothing wrong. They have worked hard to produce the best quality beef they can and they have been let down by a processor. Unfortunately, all of the links must work well in the value chain we have. The primary producers are doing the remarkable job they need to do and have done for decades, indeed eons if we go back to the early days of the pioneers on the Prairies.
What has happened in the processing part of the equation is the beef producers have been let down by a single processor which has now tarnished their image unfairly. We need to make sure that Canadians understand that. Indeed, we stand with those ranchers and say to Canadians in general that it is not the fault of the ranchers. What we need to do is address the situation that has happened at the processing plant.
I want to refer to some of my friend's comments about facts, as the parliamentary secretary likes to call them, and deal with the 700 net new inspectors.
The problem with the net new inspectors is that the CFIA has this sense that everyone should be labelled as an inspector. There is this catch-all category of inspector in which everyone is placed. With most employers, inspectors are called inspectors, assemblers are called assemblers, and clerks are called clerks, but not at the CFIA. Everyone is called an inspector.
My friend from Malpeque will remember during the listeriosis crisis that we asked the vice-president of operations, the head counter, the bean counter, how many meat inspectors were on the front line. I could not have been any more specific when I asked that question. After giving five wrong answers because he had the numbers mixed up, he finally said that he did not know. He is still there, by the way.
To suggest that somehow there are 700 net new inspectors doing meat inspection is a fallacy. Of that number, there are 170 inspectors doing meat inspection, but they only do it in ready-to-eat meat plants. What is the distinction? XL is not a ready-to-eat meat plant. Maple Leaf Foods on Bartor Road in Weston, Ontario is a ready-to-eat meat plant. There is a huge distinction between the two.
There are 46 inspectors in a plant that actually slaughters and processes, on some days, 5,000 animals a day. We divide that number by 46 over two shifts. Technically, there are only 23 inspectors on the plant floor on one shift and 23 on the plant floor on the second shift. There are two shifts in that plant. Maybe they move a couple here and a couple there. Some may work day shift more than they work afternoon shift, but nonetheless, that is how we divvy it up. We are talking about 23 folks looking after 5,000 head of cattle and working in a facility that literally is city blocks large. This is not a butcher shop on the corner. It is an industrial plant. That is how one has to think about the scope of that facility.
Let me talk about facts. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency report on plans and priorities, signed and tabled by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food himself on May 18, 2012, reads, “Planned spending is declining by approximately $46.6 million and 314 FTEs,” which means full-time equivalent. The member's minister signed the document just months ago saying that he intended to take out that amount of money and take out that number of people. That is a fact.
My hon. colleague across the way, the parliamentary secretary, should review the plans and priorities document that his minister signed.
He loves to talk about the $100 million that the Conservatives have put in. The truth is that they have not put it in at all yet. They have spent $18 million this year. It is a five-year phase-in program that talks about a specific program and then it ends. It does not go on forever. It ends, just like they sunset the listeria program. They stopped $26 million in that program. That will end too. They will also take that money out. If we want to deal in facts, then we really need to put all the facts on the table, not just some of them.
What do we look at in the Conservatives' budget document, that massive omnibus bill they presented to us earlier in the year, and now we can see what it was about. They want to try to hide things in this great big document. What do we find? In budget 2012, the next three year outlook for food safety indicates a projected cut of $56.1 million on an annual basis, not just for a project, but on an ongoing basis, a continual basis, every year, year after year. That is a fact in the Conservatives' budget document.
My friend across the way will always say to me that I vote against that. He is absolutely right. If the Conservatives intend to bring another piece of legislation forward that says that they will take money and resources out of the CFIA, I will probably vote against that as well. Perhaps they should bring in something that is positive.
My friend wanted to talk about how all of this unravelled and what the timeline looked like. The CFIA actually has a very good timeline on its website. Anyone can go visit and take a look at it. There is a debate on who saw it first, but the Americans actually caught the E. coli on September 3. They did not tell Canadians until September 4. Canadians saw it on September 4 too. That is accepted. That is true. The parliamentary secretary has said that and it is true.
However, the Americans started to do some other things. They started asking questions because they do things in a different way. They destroyed the shipment and then they started to do other testing. What did we do on September 5? We issued what is called “a corrective action request” of the company. We did not issue an order. We did not make a demand. We said, “Would you please”. That was on September 5. We got to September 6 and we were still going on, and they believed that August 24 and 28 were the days that perhaps were affected by E. coli on those particular slaughter days.
The parliamentary secretary wants us to believe it was just one incident but it was multiple pieces out of this one incident. Those were two different days. It was not one day, not one event. It was two different events. We cannot have one event on two different days. I guess we could when we think the facts are not real facts but might be facts.
What happened on September 7? The CFIA issued another corrective action request. It already issued one two days before. It had to do another one because the first one did not work. What was the company asked to do now? I am quoting now from the CFIA website. It reads:
|| XL Foods Inc. was formally requested to produce detailed information related to product details, distribution, sampling results, and information on the effectiveness of the plant's preventative controls as soon as possible but no later than September 10th.
It was also required to strengthen controls around sampling and testing of the products originating from the facility. It was a request on September 8 and 9. We are still waiting. Of course, it was a request, so we wait.
September 10 and 11, the CFIA requested that XL Foods, back on September 6 and 7, give the information to them. The CFIA finally gets stuff identified on August 24 to 28. Now, September 5, the third event. That becomes an interest of investigation, not anything more than that. September 12, the CFIA's investigation continued. FSIS, which is American, notified the CFIA that it had found two more contaminated shipments from E. coli in sample beef trimmings from XL Foods.
What did we do? We are still on September 12. The CFIA, based on its investigations and the new U.S. findings, not Canadian findings, which found the next two cases on September 12, sends in a team of experts. We knew back on September 4 that something was amiss. We gave them two corrective action requests. Now the CFIA says that maybe it should send in a team now that the Americans have said that there are two additional E. coli samples from a different batch. The CFIA thought maybe it should do something, so it sent in a team to do an in-depth review. It went through all of that on September 12.
On September 13, the CFIA removed XL Foods from the list of establishments eligible to export to the U.S. What happened to us? If the stuff was not good enough to send to the U.S., why was it good enough for Canadians?
In any case, it went through and articulated some more requests. Here is what it came up with. It said that although XL Foods Inc. had monitoring measurements in place, trend analysis of the data collected was not being properly conducted. The CFIA knew this on September 13 but it still allowed XL Foods to continue. The CFIA said that while the company's measures for dealing with meat that tested positive for E. coli were properly laid out, they were not always being followed correctly. The company knew how to do it but it just was not.
That is our food safety system? The company knows how to do it but it is not going to do it. That is basically what the CFIA found out on September 13. The CFIA also said that it knew the containers that were contaminated by E. coli were not bracketed, in other words, those were not taken out of the stream before or after they were allowed to go to the fresh meat line, which is totally contrary to the protocols involved in health and safety. It continued anyway.
In the CFIA's own words, it said that it found out that sampling protocols were not always followed by plant staff which could have resulted in inaccurate tests. So now we are hearing that maybe staff cannot do it properly.
Then we get to September 16. The CFIA and XL Foods begin to issue health hazards. The Americans had already stopped shipments at the border three days earlier. They did not want any more. The CFIA agreed that the Americans did not want anymore. Now, three days later, the CFIA and XL Foods think that maybe they should tell the public there is an issue, and they issue a hazard alert. They said that it was probably the shipments from August 24 to 28 and September 5 that were contaminated and that they would look at them even closer.
Then we get to September 17. The CFIA said that when dealing with potentially unsafe food it needs to be sure that the right products are identified, and so on. It said that it takes time. However, it did not take the Americans that much time or the CFIA. It is not about the Americans saying, “No, thank you”, which they actually said. It is about the Canadian Food Inspection Agency saying, “I am taking away XL Foods' licence to export to the U.S.”. It was not the other way around, as much as the Americans did not want the product.
On September 18, the CFIA issued five additional corrective action requests. We are now at number seven by my count. There are corrective action plans now, not on a specific incidents about the thing it was supposed to do, but new plans. Heaven knows why we would want to give people a new plan when they cannot do the old one, but this is the food inspection system.
It looks as if there are varying dates of corrective action. Depending on the risks, it moved around. Meanwhile, the U.S. has said, “No, thanks.” The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has said, “No, thanks. We will not send it to you.” They are still being sent to Canadians.
On September 21, the ongoing data review by the CFIA concluded that there were two additional production dates. There had already been three. My friend said that there was one. Now we are looking at August 27 and 29. Now we are August, 24, 27, 28, 29 and September 5. I am only a Glaswegian but I did learn my arithmetic and that is five events, five different days, five different things happening. Based on those conclusions, XL Foods began to notify customers in Canada on September 21 and recalled beef trimmings produced on August 27 to 29.
Then we jump to September 27. The CFIA announces that it has temporarily suspended the licence to operate establishment 38 XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta. The CFIA determined that inadequate controls for food safety were not fully implemented in the facility. The CFIA identified a number of deficiencies during an in-depth review of the facility. It went on to say that as of that date the company had not adequately implemented and agreed upon corrective actions and did not present acceptable plans to address longer term issues. What a marvellous conclusion. It only took seven corrective action requests but it only took two from the United States.
On September 3 and September 13, the CFIA said that no more products from the plant would go to the U.S. What about us? What happened to Canadians? Seven requests were made and none of them were followed through on.
At the end of all this, the CFIA finally said that the plant had to be closed. It t is still closed, and so it should stay closed until such time as it is ready to operate in a proper way. However, in my view, there can be no faith in a self-regulating plant that does not know how to do the things it is supposed to do, does not understand how to do them and, when it is given specific requests by the CFIA, it does not carry them out. This begs the question: Why does the CFIA not take over the entire plant and stop the self-regulating process in that specific plant until it comes back on stream and credibility is back in that facility? That is what really needs to happen.
Where are we with all of this? I watched the minister's news conference today. I thought it was wholly informative, mesmerizing and captivating. He said, and I am paraphrasing because I do not have the exact quote, “We want safe food”. We all do. Canadians are saying that they want safe food. The minister did not tell us anything else. However, as soon as the president of the CFIA stepped to the microphone and was about to answer a legitimate question and started to say that the agency did not have the authority under the present legislation to do anything else, which is inaccurate but maybe he misspoke, a political minder said that the news conference was over and asked Mr. Da Pont to move on. He is the president of the CFIA and a media staff person from the minister's office is telling him not to speak to Canadians in a public way and tell them exactly what happened. That is disgraceful. That is not transparent. That is not about telling Canadians how to build credibility back into a system that the government let fail them. That is not how credibility is built. Credibility is built by allowing the president of the CFIA to answer the questions and to tell Canadians exactly what happened.
Unfortunately, there is a bigger problem. The president of the CFIA does not understand that there is legislation in place today under section 13 of the Meat Inspection Act that allows inspectors to demand, not request, information they need to do their jobs now, not next week, not next month. The CFIA has a real problem when the top of the house does not know the legislation. That is what is wrong with that CFIA and that is what is wrong with ministerial accountability, because at the end of the day it is the minister who is responsible for ensuring that the system works, and the system is broken and it needs to be fixed.
To speak to Bill S-11, if my friend across the way had bothered to watch CBC today, he would have seen me say that we support Bill S-11 in principle, but we have some really good ideas and maybe for once the Conservatives ought to listen.
Mr. LaVar Payne (Medicine Hat, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate.
As many members know, XL Foods is located in my riding in the city of Brooks, Alberta. I know many of the people who work there and know that they are very hard-working people.
First, I will reiterate what my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, said. Food safety is a top priority of our government, and I will give some examples.
We have hired over 700 food inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors. Our government has implemented all 57 recommendations from the Weatherill report.
If opposition members believe that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, they should support our government's legislation to make sure that CFIA will have greater authorities. Unfortunately, the member for Welland has already said that his party will challenge this important legislation. That is hypocritical.
We increased CFIA's budget of $744 million by $156 million, a 20% increase. It is clear that our government takes its job on food safety seriously.
The Liberal member for Malpeque has said that he personally believes our food is safe in Canada.
Moreover, an independent report states:
|| Canada is one of the best-performing countries in the 2010 Food Safety Performance World Ranking study. Its overall grade was superior—earning it a place among the top-tier countries
How about what Albert Chambers, executive director of the Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition, who said:
|| [The government] will position Canada's food safety regime well in the rapidly changing global regulatory environment.
I agree with these assessments and with the people of Brooks who strive every day to produce good quality food.
When Canadians buy food at the grocery store they expect it to be safe. When there is a recall of unsafe food products, it can shake people's confidence in our food safety system. It is easy to think that the system has broken down and needs to be replaced.
The ingestion of bacteria such as E. coli can cause serious and potentially life threatening illnesses. Our government takes any threat to the safety of our food supply very seriously. In fact, an OECD report has demonstrated that Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world.
However, no system is foolproof. That is why there are safeguards in place to detect problems, and clear procedures and policies to address these problems as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Clearly, there is still some confusion about how the food safety system works. Given the ongoing concerns about E. coli in beef produced at XL Foods Inc., I think it would be useful to examine the elements that make up Canada's food safety system, including food recalls. I will also comment specifically on the expanded alerts issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Everyone plays a role in food safety: consumers, industry and government. Research shows that most Canadians know how to handle food safely, but many do not follow through on a daily basis. For example, in a survey, half of the respondents said that they sometimes defrosted meat and poultry at room temperature. However, this practice can allow bacteria to grow on food and can lead to illness.
There are four key rules to food safety that bear repeating: clean, separate, cook and chill. Food safety rules in the kitchen will still go a long way towards keeping families safe from harmful bacteria.
Industry obviously plays a critical role in the food safety system in Canada. All federally inspected meat and fish processing facilities must follow strict guidelines and rules for food safety. This involves identifying what can go wrong, planning to prevent a problem and taking action when a problem is identified.
Industry must adopt science-based risk management practices to minimize food safety risks. To that end, industry works to identify potential sources of food contamination, to update production practices to reduce risk, to comply with inspection and testing protocols and to pull unsafe product from the market.
I will come back to the process of food recalls in a few moments.
Food safety begins with effective laws. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, delivers all federally mandated programs for food inspection, plant and animal health products and production systems. In short, food safety is CFIA's top priority. As Canada's largest science-based regulator, the CFIA holds industry to account for the safety of its products, responds to food safety emergencies, carries out food recalls and prevents the spread of animal disease to humans. However, food safety is a complex mandate. That is why to protect our food supply, the CFIA works closely with a variety of partners, including Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
One of the CFIA's key jobs is to inspect both domestic and imported food. It also inspects, audits and tests products to verify that industry is complying with food safety regulations and enforces those regulations in federally registered food processing facilities.
Once the food safety system has identified a contaminated food product in the marketplace, an investigation takes place that can lead to a food recall. As in this case, most companies initiate a recall once a problem is identified with their products. They do this to protect the health and safety of Canadians and certainly to protect their own reputation.
When dealing with potentially unsafe food, the CFIA's investigations are driven by three considerations: accuracy, thoroughness and expediency.
First, the CFIA works to get the facts straight. It analyzes production and distribution records, which can be in several locations. It locates food samples and conducts tests. It reviews labels, distribution and information and identification codes to help inform consumers about potential risks. In this way it strives to identify all affected products.
The gathering of facts is critical to a science-based thorough investigation. In the case of XL Foods, routine testing identified a positive E. coli sample on September 4. The CFIA has been investigating the problem and taking appropriate measures ever since.
The CFIA must balance the need for accurate and reliable information with the need to inform the public as soon as possible about potential risks. To achieve this balance, the CFIA issues regular alerts for recalled products while an investigation is ongoing. As a result, it may issue several public alerts for the same recall. Once a product is posed a health risk, it is recalled immediately. The CFIA does not wait.
This is an important point. The series of expanded alerts issued over the past weeks related to XL Foods reflect new information obtained during the course of a continuing investigation. This is a normal part of the recall process and in no way indicates unnecessary delays in informing the public about a health risk.
The CFIA expects industry to monitor higher than normal detection rates and to modify control measures accordingly. The agency's investigation has shown that XL Foods did not conduct its monitoring measures consistently at the Alberta facility. Moreover, the agency has discovered deviations from the company's control measures for E. coli. The company was not able to take adequate corrective action. As a result, the CFIA temporarily suspended the company's licence, and the meat plant remains under government oversight until further notice. At the same time, XL Foods continues to work with CFIA to identify and trace contaminated food products that may be in the market.
Let me be clear. The XL plant will not reopen until CFIA has certified it is safe.
As soon as it was aware, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted immediately to address the concern about the presence of E. coli in beef produced by XL Foods. The investigation continues, informed by science-based evidence and an ongoing commitment to protect the safety of Canada's food supply and the Canadian confidence in that food supply.
I want to take a few minutes to talk about the proposed safe food for Canadians bill introduced by our government in the Senate earlier this year.
In 1997 the CFIA was created to improve and modernize federal inspection activities related to food safety, animal health and plant protection. However, the creation of the agency was only the first step. Even in 1997, it was recognized that the legislative base for the agency would in time need to be modernized.
The aim of the proposed safe food for Canadians bill is to modernize and consolidate CFIA's food inspection and enforcement authorities. The successful passage of this bill will deliver more consistent inspection and enforcement authorities covering the food safety aspects of CFIA's mandate. In this way our government can provide a more consistent and comprehensive approach to the agency's inspection enforcement and compliance activities around food.
This new food safety statute falls under the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. It enhances public and food safety security by modernizing and consolidating provisions in the current Canada Agricultural Products Act, CAPA; Fish Inspection Act, FIA; Meat Inspection Act, MIA; and provisions related to food in the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, CPLA.
The proposed legislation strengthens the agency's ability to protect Canada's food supply. It provides more consistent authorities for the food commodities regulated by CFIA. What we will have is a uniform set of powers, duties and functions for all CFIA inspectors, no matter what sort of food product is being inspected. This can only deliver better food safety outcomes for Canadians.
Let me mention some of the major provisions of the bill. The proposed legislation will allow our government to take appropriate actions when safety issues arise by issuing tougher fines and penalties, establishing a system to better track, trace and recall harmful products and prohibiting unsafe foods from entering the Canadian market.
An extension of regulation making authorities for export certification will provide Canadian exporters with business predictability if trading partners make certification a condition of market access. This will be accomplished by providing credible assurance to importing countries that Canadian exports are safe.
The bill would make it illegal to knowingly submit false or misleading information to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food with regard to any commodity or products covered by the act. This would protect consumers from fraud.
There are elements of the bill that industry would like to see enacted. The bill includes specific prohibition related to threats of tampering, making claims to have tampered and actual tampering. It covers hoaxes with regard to food and packaging. Currently these activities fall under the general of mischief in the Criminal Code. They need to be specifically identified for what they are: criminal activities which should be covered by very specific legislation.
Of great importance to all Canadians is that the bill prohibits the import of food commodity that is adulterated, that has poisonous or harmful substances, that is unfit for human consumption or that is injurious to human health. Products that are labelled contrary to the proposed regulations will also be prohibited.
I do not want the House to misunderstand and believe there are no current provisions protecting Canadians from such things, but the proposed bill consolidates the various pieces of prior legislation so these prohibitions reside in a single act instead of several different acts which only had bearing on specific commodities.
These acts, enacted at different times in our nation's history, provide an uneven and outdated legislative base that makes it difficult to deal with various issues in a uniform way. We need to enact this new legislation which brings all of these various commodities under a single umbrella.
By consolidating the authorities in the act into one consistent set of authorities under the bill, we give the CFIA the tools it needs to better protect Canadians and to enhance industry compliance. The CFIA will be better able to strengthen the security of the food supply and better protect Canadians' health.
They will give the CFIA enforcement and inspection powers that are similar to those in the consumer products legislation, Bill C-36. The bill will enhance existing inspection and enforcement tools at the Canada-U.S. border, providing the Canada Border Services Agency officers and CFIA inspectors with better controls when enforcing CFIA legislation on our border, at airports and in our shipping ports.
It is important to make clear what the bill does not do. The current roles and responsibilities of the Minister of Health and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food will not change as a result of the bill. The Minister of Health remains responsible for setting policy and standards for food safety and nutritional quality. The CFIA will be responsible for enforcing these standards, as well as setting and enforcing other standards.
We are all familiar with the tragic deaths and illness resulting from a listeriosis outbreak in 2008. Hard lessons were learned from that event. Since the agency was formed, we have also had to deal with BSE, salmonella, E.coli and other threats that keep the importance of food safety in the Canadian consciousness.
It is because of this awareness of the potential threats that the concept behind the proposed safe food for Canadians bill has support from stakeholders and is seen as a benefit to all Canadians.
The listeriosis outbreak of 2008 prompted the Prime Minister to name an independent investigator, Sheila Weatherill, to look into the circumstances of the tragedy and make recommendations to our government on how to avoid having similar events occur in the future.
One of the recommendations, number 43 of 57, states that the government should “simplify and modernize federal legislation and regulations which significantly affect food safety”.
That is precisely what this proposed bill sets out to do. Our government committed to addressing all 57 of the independent investigator's recommendations. We are therefore duty bound to protect Canadians from future tragedy and see this legislation through.
Our government has a solid reputation for the safety of our food supply and we want to give the CFIA the inspection and enforcement capabilities that it needs to maintain that reputation and to build on it. I urge all hon. senators to join me in supporting this bill.
I want to reiterate that the XL Food plant will remain closed until such time as it meets all regulations and requirements of CFIA.
Ms. Ruth Ellen Brosseau (Berthier—Maskinongé, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Burnaby—New Westminster.
I congratulate my colleague on his speech. I want to point out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a role to play. As elected representatives, we also have a role to play. Where does the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food lie in this issue? We do not see it, and that is worrisome.
This is the largest recall of meat in history. It is worrisome and really incredible in 2012. How can a country like Canada find itself in this situation?
On September 4, tests revealed a risk of E. coli contamination. The United States found out about the contamination on September 3. Last week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced the suspension of the operating licence of the XL Foods processing plant in Brooks, Alberta. This means that the plant remained in operation for over three weeks after the first suspicions, until September 27. This is unacceptable. Thousands of Canadians were exposed to E. coli because of this delay.
Why wait 24 days to close a plant where such a problem had been detected? That is the question. It seems to me that, faced with such a situation, it is better to proceed with caution and to take action as soon as there is a risk that food safety for Canadians may be compromised.
It took several days of investigation and tests for the CFIA to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to shut down the plant in Alberta. That is what we condemn. It is not only the safety of Canadians that is at stake, but also our trade relations and our credibility with the public.
Since September 16, the CFIA has issued at least eight alerts for recalled beef products from the XL Foods plant, because it fears E. coli contamination. This recall affects thousands of products. The recall of meat is growing every day. In Quebec, the recall of beef products that may have been contaminated with E. coli is getting larger.
In addition to the ground beef already identified elsewhere in the country, there are now other meat cuts sold all over Quebec. Even more worrisome is the fact that the recall also includes unlabelled and no-name beef products sold in retail stores, local meat markets and butcher shops. People are worried, and understandably so.
I would like to read some comments I received from the people of Berthier—Maskinongé. Before the E. coli crisis, I asked the people of my riding what some of their concerns were. Here is part of a letter from a woman from Saint-Alexis-des-Monts:
|| The reinstatement of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors is urgent and crucial. Canadians should be able to buy any of the food offered for sale in Canada with full confidence.
This comment was sent to me before the crisis. Does anyone here believe that Canadians can trust the food inspection system? A system that took 24 days to close a plant that was producing contaminated meat? A system that took 12 days to even warn Canadians? A system that allowed tainted meat to make its way to our store shelves? I do not think so.
Another woman wrote, “We have 18-month-old twins and when we read labels, it is very worrisome.”
Parents should not have to worry about what they are feeding their children. In Canada, it seems they do need to worry. We should be able to trust our food safety system. As a mother, my thoughts are with Christina Lees, whose son Elijah got sick. She said she felt powerless and was angry that her son got sick and that it could happen to other people.
As parents and elected officials, we have a job to do. The minister has a responsibility. This is the second time this has happened in five years. If it were one of our children or one of our family members who became sick because of E. coli, would that make a difference?
Would changes at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency happen more quickly? Perhaps.
Why did it take so long to act, and more specifically, why did the government not learn its lesson from the listeriosis crisis? I get the impression that the recent cuts to CFIA are setting us back five years.
Food inspection is less regulated. It seems obvious that the government took a long time to act because of a lack of resources. The Conservative government's draconian cuts and the limited resources at CFIA increase the risk of this happening again.
This spring, the Conservatives tabled their Trojan Horse budget. I do not think anyone has forgotten that massive bill. How could we forget a 425-page bill?
In that budget, the Conservatives decided to take an axe to public services, and Canadians are paying the price. Food inspection is extremely important. That is not the place for budget cuts.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's reports on plans and priorities for 2012-13 and 2014-15, planned spending is declining by approximately $46.6 million, and the number of full-time employees is going down by 314.
On April 25, 2012, I asked what effects the cuts would have on food safety, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture responded, “...what I said was that no cost-cutting measure will compromise food safety.” Look at where we are now.
Look at the situation we are in now. We have the largest beef recall in Canadian history. That is a big deal. When a government makes cuts to food inspection, there are consequences. The work that inspectors and veterinarians do is essential to Canadians' safety.
The Conservatives love to talk about their food safety bill, Bill S-11. They also love to say that the New Democrats will vote against this bill. First, I never said that I would vote against it. We need more measures to protect food safety in Canada.
The truth is that this bill was introduced in the Senate instead of the House of Commons. Why? This means that we have not had the chance to debate this bill, because it is currently being debated by non-elected officials. Why would they introduce it in the Senate? Are the Conservatives afraid?
If they are proud of their bill, why not introduce it in the House of Commons? Why not let my colleagues debate it in the House? That is what we are waiting for.
In the summer of 2008, the listeriosis crisis resulted in the recall of Maple Leaf deli meats. This crisis shook consumers' confidence and revealed obvious flaws in the food inspection system.
Some of the findings of the independent investigation that the federal government asked Sheila Weatherill to conduct following the 2008 listeriosis outbreak included a lack of focus on food safety among senior management in both private and public domains, a lack of planning and preparation, and a lack of communication with the public and among the various organizations.
At the time, the first case of food poisoning related to the consumption of a product made at the Maple Leaf processing plant was reported the week of June 1, 2008. The first recall was issued on August 17. In the meantime, products that were potentially contaminated with listeria continued to be sold across the country. The current situation bears a striking resemblance to that incident.
Many recommendations were made. Ms. Weatherill urged the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to establish product control requirements following positive test results for listeria on food contact surfaces. This measure would make it possible to ensure that contaminated food was withdrawn before it was distributed to consumers.
As a result, the government took steps to prevent such a situation from happening again. However, the government now wants to do more with less. We all know we cannot do more with less.
Wishful thinking will get us nowhere, and food safety for Canadian families must be paramount.
We cannot put a price tag on food safety.
When will the Conservatives demonstrate transparency to the Canadian public? When will the government take action to ensure the safety of Canadians? When will the government admit that it is responsible for this situation?
Mr. Peter Julian (Burnaby—New Westminster, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I was sad to hear, just a few moments ago, the Minister of State (Finance), who I have a lot of respect for, say that this was a minor problem. It is fair to say that from the perspective of the family of five-year-old Elijah who experienced liver failure and severe sickness as a result of this contamination and from the perspective of the 12, 15 or 20 families affected, we really do not know how many yet, it is not a minor problem at all. It is a very serious problem.
I would like to thank the member for Berthier—Maskinongé for her comments in the House. I simply do not accept the sense that I am getting from the government that this is not its responsibility and that somehow it is someone else's fault, the CFIA's fault, the opposition's fault or some other dark force's fault, and not its fault that as a result of the cuts that we have been speaking to tonight a couple dozen families now have someone with severe sickness. It is not anyone else's fault. It is the government's responsibility to ensure that our systems are safe and the food that we eat is safe. What has happened over the last few weeks is that those systems have failed.
I would like to take a few moments to explain what I feel is the smoking gun for what has transpired over the last few weeks. The member for Welland was very detailed in his presentation. He went over every week of the outbreak as families fell sick, as the recalls seemed to cascade, one on top of the other, and the government seemed incapable of acting effectively. The important date is September 13. I know there are a lot of people across the country listening to this debate tonight so it is important to explain what happened on September 13 and how that has had an impact on our food systems overall.
On September 13, as the member for Welland spoke about just a few minutes ago, the CFIA removed XL. It is a plant that I have visited. I stood with the workers outside that plant just a few years ago with the member for Hamilton Centre. I visited that plant and know the workers and the plant well. On that date, the U.S. permit was pulled. XL was banned from exporting meat to the United States because of contamination. Obviously, there were fears then that exporting that meat would make people in the United States sick.
There was no recall in Canada. There was no protection for Canadian families. Other Canadian families have gotten sick since that date. However, that very same day, September 13, 2012, as the export permit was pulled due to fears of U.S. families getting sick, the meat continued to be shipped into Canada.
On September 13, as well, 481 employees in CFIA received affected notices, which are potential layoff and transfer notices. The very same day we have an outbreak of enormous proportions, such as we have never seen before in our meat supply in Canada, and that is the day that the government chose to send out to nearly 500 CFIA employees notices indicating they will be either laid off or transferred out of CFIA.
That is incredible. It is incredible that the very day we are seeing this tragedy unfold, the Conservative government says it is going to cut back even further. We have heard a lot tonight about what the government has done around cutbacks and how that may have contributed to the tragedy we see before us.
Let us look at what has actually happened over the past few years since the listeriosis outbreak. When we talk about meat hygiene and slaughter program inspectors at that plant, there was no increase in the number of positions.
Mr. LaVar Payne: Six new ones.
Mr. Peter Julian: There was no increase in the number of positions. There has been what I think is a lot of misinformation coming from the government side. There were 46 positions before. There are 46 positions now. That did not change.
When we hear government saying things that are inaccurate, the Canadian public is very intelligent and they can connect the dots. There were 46 positions before and now there are 46 positions.
The important thing to remember in all of this is that over that period with the same number of inspectors, the volume of meat being processed at that plant increased by 20%. With a 20% increase in the volume being processed at that plant and the number of inspectors, regardless of what the government says, was never increased.
This is the real tragedy. On September 13, the government slashed 500 positions from the CFIA and sent out affected notices. At the same time, over the last few years, despite the government's pretense around dealing with what is a very serious issue, the issue of food safety, in that plant, as the volume increased, the number of inspectors was not increased. There was a 20% increase in volume, a 20% increase in the workload and the government did not increase the number of inspectors.
The proof there is that compliance was transferred over to the company itself. It was self-serve safety. It was simply going to let the company take care of itself. The government was not going to increase the number of inspectors, even though the volume was increasing. It was just going to pretend that it had dealt with what should be a very important food inspection system by letting the company take care of it.
The company did not take care of it. Through the evidence that the member for Welland presented, we have seen that over the course of the weeks the tragedy increased. We still do not know how many additional Canadian families will have a severe sickness. We still do not know, given the size and scope of the recall and the fact that it has to stretch right across the country, if other families will be sick tonight.
Through all of that, and this is what I find the most disconcerting being in this House of Commons, we have not had a single government spokesperson stand up and say, “We were wrong to do this.” We have not had a single government spokesperson stand up and say, “Sorry” to the Canadian public, “We should not have cut back. We should have increased the number of inspectors. We apologize for not taking care of you.”
That is what government should do: be responsible. Through this entire week, despite the fact that we have had questions from the member for Welland, the member for Berthier—Maskinongé and repeated questions in the House, we have not seen the minister who is supposed to be responsible stand up a single time this week to respond to the questions about what he knew, when he knew it, whether he understood the impacts of the cuts, whether he understood what not increasing the number of inspectors when the massive volume increased by over 20% meant, and why he did not make any of those key decisions that would have perhaps resulted in our avoiding what is now a second tragedy from the government.
This is really what this emergency debate is all about. This is why the opposition asked for this emergency debate. We are asking for answers. We have been trying to ask questions in the House. The Minister of Agriculture has not stood up a single time to explain to Canadians what happened.
We had a news conference where the CFIA president was trying to give Canadians an explanation but was pulled away from the media by a political staffer. He was pulled away from the journalists who were asking questions on behalf of Canadians and he was not able to respond.
Tonight, we have not had a single representative from the government stand up, look Canadians in the eye and say, “We are sorry. We were wrong not to increase the number of inspectors. We are sorry. We were wrong to cut back by 500 positions the very day that XL Foods was banned from exporting meat to the United States because it was afraid of consumers in the United States getting sick.”
Canadian families deserve to have a food safety system they can trust, so that when they buy that food they can trust that it will be safe for themselves and their families. Canadian families deserve much better than what they have gotten from the government. We would like to hear some answers from the government tonight. We would like it to explain what went wrong and how it will fix it.
Ms. Kellie Leitch (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to extend my heartfelt concerns to the patients and families impacted. I know that all members of the House hope for their speedy recovery.
As someone who has spent her career in the health care field, I am honoured to rise and speak to this critically important issue today.
As the hon. Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in Calgary earlier today, Canadian consumers and their families have always been and will continue to be our government's first priority when it comes to food safety. Our government and all Canadians expect a strong food safety system and that is why our government is doing its part.
It is important that we refrain from hyperbole and rhetoric. We must stay focused and we must keep our discussions firmly rooted in science and those things that focus on Canadian families. That is why I want to provide some facts.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on September 4 and has been acting ever since. The XL Foods plant will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified that it is safe. Our government has hired over 700 food inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors. Our government has implemented all 57 recommendations from the Weatherill report.
If the opposition believes that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, it should support the government's legislation, Bill S-11, the safe food for Canadians act, to ensure that the CFIA has greater authority.
We increased the CFIA's budget by $156 million, $744 million total budget, for a 20% increase.
I would also like to add as a health care professional that I am happy to see that our economic action plan 2012 facilitates Health Canada to respond faster to new scientific and safety information. Previously, a 36-month delay existed in the implementing of approved food additives to stop the growth of harmful bacteria. Now it is six months, a huge improvement that benefits Canadian patients and the Canadian consumer.
Those are facts. What the opposition is doing is resorting to hearsay and fear-mongering, which does a grave disservice to Canadians who rely on us for the sound, factual information they need to protect themselves and their families.
E. coli refers to a large group of bacteria that is commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains of E. coli do not cause acute illness in humans. However, some strains, such as E. coli 0157:H7, can make people sick. Serious complications of an E. coli 0157:H7 infection can cause kidney failure and other challenges for patients. E. coli infections are generally caused by eating contaminated foods, drinking contaminated water or coming into direct contact with someone who is sick or with an animal that carries the bacteria.
The Public Health Agency of Canada closely tracks E. coli cases across the country. Over the past decade, we have seen a marked decline in the incidence of E. coli 0157:H7 as reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada's national enteric surveillance program. In 2001, the number of cases of E. coli 0157:H7 was half that reported in 2006. The data reported in 2012 is undergoing validation currently. It continues to show a downward trend. This is a positive trend based on fact not fiction. However, we must remain vigilant.
The Public Health Agency of Canada works closely with the provinces and territories to track the number of certain E. coli cases across the country. When people get sick they go to the doctor. The doctors, in many cases, take samples from the patients and send them to local, provincial, territorial or federal labs for testing. That is the normal practice. These labs test the samples to identify the organism causing illness and may conduct further testing to identify the genetic footprint of the bacteria.
It is important to note that the provinces are the lead when it comes to these health issues. Provincial and territorial labs report weekly to the national enteric surveillance program the number of E. coli cases identified in their province or territory. The laboratories may also then post the results of the tests of the genetic fingerprint on the PulseNet Canada system, a national network that allows microbiologists to track and share genetic fingerprints for comparison across the country.
All labs then compare their results with those posted on PulseNet to find matches and identify outbreaks. PulseNet Canada is coordinated by the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
The Canadian notifiable disease surveillance system also tracks the total number of E. coli infections each year, as well as the age and sex of the cases. This system is best for understanding if there is an increase or decrease in illness over time.
Outbreaks may occur in a community, a single province, or multiple provinces, and not all outbreaks are reported at the national level.
We are taking every means possible to ensure that consumers have the information they need to protect themselves and their families. We know that E. coli infections can be caused by many things, whether it is improper cooking of beef; raw fruits and uncooked vegetables; untreated drinking water; unpasteurized raw milk products, including raw milk cheese; unpasteurized apple cider or juice; or direct contact with animals at petting zoos or farms. We are acting to make sure that Canadians know of these potential causes of E. coli infection.
Food can also be contaminated when it is handled by a person who is infected with E. coli or by cross-contamination because of unsanitary food handling processes. Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated with E. coli in the field from improperly composted manure, contaminated water, wildlife, or poor hygiene by farm workers. As well, E. coli infections can spread easily from person to person, as we see often in hospital settings.
Proper hygiene and safe food handling and preparation practices are key to preventing the spread of E. coli. Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.
I am hearing a fair amount from my colleagues in the Liberal Party. I think it is extremely important that every Canadian understand that handwashing is the best way to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses.
Contaminated foods may look and smell normal, and it is important to ensure that consumers thoroughly cook foods to destroy bacteria.
As the Right Hon. Prime Minister noted in this House earlier today, Canada's food safety record is among the best in the world. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development has said:
|| Canada is one of the best-performing countries in the 2010 Food Safety Performance World Ranking study. Its overall grade was superior—earning it a place among the top-tier countries.
However, we are not complacent. Our government will continue to improve the food inspection system through the safe food for Canadians act, which we introduced this spring.
Bill S-11 would consolidate food safety authorities from several existing acts, allowing all foods to be inspected in a uniform way. More consistent inspection will provide Canadian consumers with even stronger food safety outcomes.
Furthermore, the safe food for Canadians act would enable the CFIA to better address certain food safety concerns, such as tampering. It would also enhance our capacity to trace food from farm to fork and introduce greater controls for imported foods. Canadians can be assured that we are confident in our ability to implement these improvements once the legislation is passed.
The member for Welland, on the one hand, I must say, likes to talk about increased food safety, but he then says that he opposes this important legislation. This is the same member who claimed that the CFIA would allow roadkill into the Canadian food chain. This is quite outrageous. The member has zero credibility when it comes to food safety.
The proposed legislation is only one part of our ongoing efforts to enhance the food safety system. We are building a stronger foundation for the delivery of CFIA's programs through an update of regulations.
Our existing regulations continue to serve Canadians well, but we want to take advantage of opportunities to reduce overlap, address gaps and provide regulated parties with clarity and flexibility.
Although renewing our legislative and regulatory base is important, it is the work of inspectors that is central to a modern and effective food safety system. This is why the CFIA has hired more than 700 inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors. It is also the reason budget 2011 provided the CFIA with $100 million over five years to modernize food safety inspection in Canada.
We are improving inspection delivery, training and tools for inspection staff, scientific capacity in food laboratories and information management and technology.
This funding and additional investments in food safety clearly underscore the CFIA's pledge to deliver to Canadians the protection they deserve and expect.
Budget 2012 reaffirmed our government's strong commitment to food safety with more than $51 million over two years to strengthen the food safety system.
Our government immediately accepted all 57 recommendations of the Weatherill report. We have acted on all of them and have invested significantly in acting on them. We have improved our ability to prevent, detect and respond to future food-borne illness outbreaks. We have increased our efforts to make information available to Canadians about the steps they can take to protect themselves. We introduced a new food safety bill to simplify and modernize legislation. All of this work is part of our effort to better protect Canadians from unsafe food.
When food recalls happen, all levels of government and industry must be able to respond quickly and effectively. Our government has engaged industry leaders in open and frank conversations about food safety policy, standards and best practices. We are working with experts across the country to continue to strengthen our food safety system. We are continually improving Canada's food safety system, ensuring that the provincial and territorial governments, industry, health and consumer groups, and international food experts are all working together on behalf of Canadians.
Over the last two years, the agencies have improved our ability to share information so that all Canadians can react more quickly and effectively in responding to food safety problems.
Our efforts will not stop here. Our government remains committed to taking the action necessary to ensure that our food safety system remains one of the best in the world. We take the trust Canadians have put in us to protect the safety of Canada's food supply extremely seriously.
Canadian consumers are always our government's first priority when it comes to food safety. We will continue to make sure that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has the resources it needs to do its important job of protecting Canadians and their families. Canadian consumers are, and will continue to be, our first priority.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with respect to this issue. It is one that has been extremely important to those members and my constituents in Simcoe—Grey.
Mrs. Djaouida Sellah (Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Newton—North Delta.
This is a major crisis we are going through. The facts are clear. This is the largest meat recall in Canadian history, affecting more than 1,500 products across the country, and that is not insignificant.
A number of things concern me about the safety of our food, in this case in particular. First, it was the Americans who first discovered the E. coli bacteria in the meat, before our Canadian inspectors did.
I know that the Conservatives, including the Minister of Agriculture, said today in Calgary that there were just a few hours between the time when the U.S. inspectors sounded the alarm and the time when Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors did, but the fact remains that the Americans were first.
If memory serves me correctly, this is the second major crisis discovered by the Americans. The same thing happened when the Sandoz drug manufacturing plant closed in January. I am not questioning the competence or dedication of the officials. I am questioning the reliability of the system in which they are working.
Canadians have to have trust in their government inspection systems, but in this case they have reason to doubt. We must restore their confidence. Unfortunately, the way the Conservatives are managing the current crisis is doing nothing to reassure the public. It took far too long for the products to be recalled and the abattoir to be closed after the E. coli bacteria was discovered.
The statements by the Minister of Agriculture, who initially said no tainted products made their way to grocery store shelves and then had to issue a recall, do nothing to inspire confidence, especially when we see the list of recalled products getting longer every day.
The worst thing in all this is that the health of Canadians was put in jeopardy by the government's inaction. The E. coli bacteria is not innocuous. Most of the people infected will show no symptoms; others will have relatively minor, but very unpleasant stomach ailments, such as cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, headaches and fever.
Symptoms can appear within 5 to 10 days following contamination, and infected people can also pass on the bacteria to their loved ones. The number of people affected is therefore likely to increase beyond the five confirmed and 23 suspected cases. In the most serious cases, the E. coli bacteria can cause life-threatening symptoms, including kidney failure, epileptic seizures and stroke.
In some cases, fortunately a small number of cases, the bacteria can cause permanent damage such as kidney damage, especially among high-risk groups, which include pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, young children and seniors. I was very upset to learn that a young boy is suffering from kidney failure.
The second thing that concerns me is the rhetoric being spewed by the members opposite regarding food inspection. I know my colleagues opposite received the same emails that I did. I received hundreds of emails from the people of my riding expressing their concerns about the cuts to food inspection and the changes made regarding labelling. Considering the crisis we are now facing, they are right to be worried.
And yet how many times—today alone—have we heard the Conservatives say that food safety is important to this government and to Canadians, or that our food inspection system is one of the best in the world?
If our system is so good and if food safety is a priority, why was the Canadian Food Inspection Agency not spared from the budget cuts? Why did the government cut more than $46 million and why were more than 300 positions eliminated? Why will funding for the food safety program be reduced from $355 million in 2011-12 to $337 million in 2014-15? Are we aiming for a middle-of-the-road food safety system? Canadians deserve better. They deserve the best system.
These cuts are even more surprising when we consider that, according to the Public Service Alliance, the minister was apparently warned in January 2009 in a briefing note from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that the inspection program could not handle the workload and meet delivery requirements. I do not understand why the minister is now reducing the number of inspectors.
When it comes to food safety, there should be no compromising because Canadians' health is at stake. The Conservatives have been telling us for months that cuts to the public service will not affect Canadians. We know that this is not the case. Cuts of more than $46 million and the elimination of more than 300 positions, including 100 CFIA inspectors, will have consequences. I could say the same thing about the $5 billion in cuts and the 19,000 jobs lost in the public service.
There is something wrong with the system, and we have the right to answers from the Minister of Agriculture. The fact that American authorities were the first to discover the contamination is disturbing. But there is nothing more disturbing than learning that, despite the positive test results on September 4 and 5, the public was not notified until September 16. That is quite simply unacceptable because Canadians' health was put at risk. We need to know what went wrong and ensure that it does not happen again.
Ms. Jinny Jogindera Sims (Newton—North Delta, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, as a mother and grandmother, my heart goes out to the families who have been impacted by the tainted meat and E. coli breakout. I cannot imagine how those families must be feeling right now. I know that the same kind of angst, pain and fear they are feeling as a result of their family members being sick is shared by other Canadians, who are wondering if they ate meat from that particular plant and if they should dare buy beef today.
As Christine Lee said when she was interviewed by the CBC, she became very concerned. Indeed, the hospital confirmed to her on September 16 that her son Elijah had E. coli, but it was not until September 26 that a health warning was issued for steaks bought at a northeast Edmonton Costco supplied by the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alberta. This information is pulled from the CBC article.
I find it unfathomable that any member of Parliament sitting in the House today or at any time could talk about fearmongering when we are actually dealing with the biggest meat recall in our history. We are talking about Canadian families whose loved ones are ill. We are trying to express tonight in this debate a great deal of concern and a call for immediate action. That is what we are looking for, not long-term bills about what we are going to do three to five years down the road, but what went wrong, why and what other steps will be taken to address this issue.
As a teacher, I talked for years about the importance of washing hands to prevent kids from getting colds or the flu. Whenever I fly, I always try to make sure that when I cough or sneeze, I do it the new way by coughing or sneezing into my elbow. Let us be honest that to hear a member of Parliament talking about the need to wash hands in this context makes one wonder if she is thinking that the workers at the plant failed to wash their hands and that is why there is an E. coli outbreak, or if she is saying that when we all wash our hands the E. coli will not affect us. I was left sitting here shaking my head at those kinds of statements being made in the House when the same member of Parliament talks at the same time about fearmongering. The fact that we have the largest recall of beef in our history is causing enough fear.
We are hoping that after tonight's debate the government will take immediate action to assure people that things are in hand. Instead, the agriculture minister is missing in action. I would like to ask him some very direct questions and I am sure I will get the opportunity to do that.
The member's comments about washing hands also bring to mind that we have an agriculture minister who, when making a speech at a dinner, made a lighthearted joke. One could say that he was just trying to lighten the mood because there must have been some tension at that dinner where beef was being served. It was very inappropriate for any minister to make those kinds of comments, saying he was eating beef and that because he was okay, everyone else must be okay too. That is just not acceptable.
I can say one thing: We as Canadians cannot accept E. coli in our food system and allow even one more person to get sick. Maybe I was living in a bit of a naive place, but I always believed that our food inspection was far superior to that of the Americans. I really believed that. However, what has come to light is that the Americans were on top of this E. coli outbreak long before we were. Now I am beginning to worry about the safety of our other foods and the kind of inspections we have.
The current government is very fond of talking about cutting red tape. If cutting red tape means not having enough inspectors to inspect food, hygiene and food health, and we now have to rely on companies to do their own inspection, I can assure members that Canadians do not want that kind of red tape reduction. That is not red tape but a matter of life and death.
We take this very seriously on this side of the House. We do not joke about it. We do not think this is fearmongering. This is a serious and grave concern and one that every parliamentarian should be engaged in and looking to find solutions for, instead of their trying to blame the opposition.
I keep hearing about the NDP apparently not going to support the bill, and yet I have heard our critic say over and over again, the bill has deficiencies but we in the NDP are going to help make it better and will support it being taken to report stage.
However, let us look at some of the policies of the government that could actually have contributed to the very unfortunate disaster that we have upon us.
One of the problems is that the Brooks plant in Alberta has very high staff turnover. When there is a very high staff turnover, things fall through the cracks.
I also learned that a very large number of workers at this particular plant are temporary foreign workers and that they are not on the road to citizenship. We really need these workers in Alberta. It is not as if we do not need meat and do not have an ongoing cattle industry. Yet because of the government's policies, we still bring these people in as temporary foreign workers. They do their short stint, work hard, and probably work for less money than other workers would be willing to do. We are not sure if they get the training.
Here I have some very serious questions. I wish the minister were here to answer them. I want to know what kind of training those temporary foreign workers are given before they work in these plants. I ask because we are talking about the life, safety and security of Canadians. I hear over and over again from the government side how the security of Canadians, the security of Canada, is its number one priority. If that is our number one priority, then I want to know what steps are taken to address that when new workers arrive. Remember that these workers come in and then leave. They come in and then we send them back. I want to know what kind of training they are given. I want to know what kind of health and safety inspections exist.
I also want to point out that there must be a certain amount of fear on the part of temporary foreign workers as to what they can report, because they must be worried about what that would mean, particularly as are brought here to work on a very temporary basis but are not considered good enough to live here. They know they will be sent back and replaced by a few hundred other workers who will fill their vacated positions.
I want to go back to the need for everyone to tone down the rhetoric and to look at what went wrong and implement solutions immediately so that Canadians can feel secure.
Those solutions will not be through cutting red tape, but through making sure the resources are there for appropriate food inspection. I am not prepared to accept food inspection at a lower level than that of our neighbours, the United States.
Mr. Bob Zimmer (Prince George—Peace River, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this debate.
Let me remind my colleagues in the opposition of some of the facts that they choose to ignore.
Fact: as government, we have hired over 700 food inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors. Fact: our government has implemented all 57 recommendations from the Weatherill report. Fact: if the opposition believes that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, it should support our government's legislation to make sure that the CFIA has greater authorities. It needs to support our safe food for Canadians act. Fact: we increased the CFIA's budget by $156 million, $744 million in total budget, which is a 20% increase. Fact: the XL plant will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified that it is safe.
It is too bad the opposition does not want to listen to these facts.
Again, no safety system goes unchallenged; that is why it is there. It is how it responds to challenges that shows how well it works. We can see this in the chain of events that began on September 4. Let us look at the timeline.
On September 4, during routine testing, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, identified a positive E. coli 0157:H7 sample in raw beef trimmings produced at an Alberta facility supplied by XL Foods Inc. Plant management and the CFIA veterinarian in charge at XL Foods Inc. were notified of this finding. The problem was picked up by U.S. officials the same day as the CFIA was dealing with it.
The first step for the CFIA was to ensure that the contaminated product had not reached consumers in Canada. There was no delay. The agency determined it had not reached the Canadian marketplace, which is why there was no product recall at that time.
The CFIA immediately began an investigation to determine the source of the contamination. This included enhanced on-site inspection activities, including additional oversight of daily testing to ensure that public health and food safety were not compromised. CFIA officials report their initial investigation found no obvious indication that other products at the plant posed any risk, but they did not stop there. They dug deeper.
On September 6, they requested distribution information and testing results for all products produced on August 24 and August 28, the days when the affected products were made.
On September 7, the agency issued a corrective action request to XL Foods requiring it to strengthen controls around sampling and testing of meat products originating from the Brooks plant. The agency again also requested XL Foods to produce detailed information related to product details, distribution, sampling results and information on the effectiveness of the plant's preventive controls no later than September 10. Their additional analysis, plus more information from the company, revealed shortcomings in the company's procedures that warranted further investigation.
On September 12, the CFIA sent a technical review team into the plant to help on-site staff conduct an in-depth review of operations and assess how and where contamination had occurred.
On September 13, the CFIA removed XL Foods Inc. from the list of establishments eligible to export to the U.S., but with no evidence that any contaminated product discovered in the initial test had reached Canadian consumers, there was again no product recall.
The technical review team determined there was no single factor that would lead to E. coli contamination of products leaving the XL Foods plant. Rather, the team concluded that a combination of deficiencies may have contributed to the contamination.
Based on these findings, XL Foods began to advise customers that it was recalling beef trimmings for August 24, 28 and September 5.
On September 16, the CFIA and XL Foods began issuing health hazard alerts. They warned the public, distributors, grocery chains and food service establishments not to consume, sell or serve specific ground beef products made from XL Foods beef trimmings from August 24, 28 and September 5. The recall has since expanded to include a variety of XL Foods meat products.
From its ongoing data review, the CFIA identified two additional production dates, August 27 and 29, with higher risks for E. coli contamination. As a result, XL Foods began notifying its customers in Canada and the U.S. that it was recalling beef trimmings produced on August 27 and 29.
On September 22, the CFIA issued a new health hazard alert identifying products related to two additional days.
By September 26, it was clear to the CFIA that the Brooks XL Foods plant had not completely corrected its deficiencies. The plant's licence was temporarily suspended and all products were held for testing.
One thing that must be made crystal clear is that XL Foods will not resume operations until the company has demonstrated to the CFIA's complete satisfaction that it has fully implemented the required corrective actions. The resumption of operations, when it occurs, will include additional requirements in terms of test and hold procedures on an ongoing basis. The CFIA wants to be certain that once it has reviewed and approved the plant's control plans, those plans will deliver safe products to Canadians.
As we review this timeline, we see a rapid methodical scientific response to a complex problem. Attention has focused on the time between the initial detection of E. coli, the recalls and the plant shutdown. In fact, the agency was fully committed to investigating the source of contamination and preventing contaminated products from reaching consumers.
If we look at how these events unfolded, we see a food safety system responding to a serious challenge as it should, responsibly and effectively. There is no foundation to the suggestion that there were too few inspectors at the plant as a result of budget cutbacks. The CFIA has confirmed the plant has 46 full-time staff, including 40 inspection staff and six veterinarians, who provide daily inspections in the plant for its two shifts. That is certainly not a reduction. Far from reductions, the number of CFIA staff at this XL Foods plant has increased by six during the last several years.
That is not to say there is nothing to learn from this event, and I am sure the CFIA, the meat-packing industry, consumers and all the food safety partners involved will adopt any lessons they have learned.
I remind my colleagues that our government introduced the safe food for Canadians act last June to protect Canadian families from potentially unsafe food. Those concerned about food safety should give this bill their support when it comes to the House.
For example, the bill would allow the CFIA to create a requirement for the food industry to have traceability systems. We can see how important it is to trace products from farm to fork, and in the event of an incident like this one, to do it quickly. The proposed regulation-making authority would help the agency in its efforts to quickly remove recalled products from the marketplace. The regulation under the bill would also ensure that the company provides documentation in a form that can be easily and quickly assessed without the need for the company to interpret. No one gets excited about streamlining bureaucratic procedures, but when lives are on the line, we see the point.
I look forward to seeing the proposed safe food for Canadians bill move swiftly through this House and into law so Canadians will have the benefit of an even more effective food safety system. I support this proposed legislation because it is time that Canadians felt more protected when they shop for food and sit down at their dinner tables to eat it. It is time to modernize and for Canadians to have comprehensive protection from unsafe food under one single piece of legislation. We have one of the strongest food safety systems in the world. This legislation would further enhance this system.
However, consumer expectations for stronger food safety systems are higher than ever. These expectations have evolved following such food safety incidents as melamine contamination of imported dairy products from abroad and outbreaks of food poisoning from domestically produced food products. Enacting this food safety legislation would allow us to do a recommendation of the report by Sheila Weatherill, the report of the independent investigator into the 2008 listeriosis outbreak. The recommendation is to modernize and simplify food safety legislation. Our government has committed itself to addressing all 57 of the independent investigator's recommendations.
The parliamentary subcommittee on food safety, with representation of both government and the opposition, voiced unanimous support to act on all the recommendations of that report. I urge this House to make good on that pledge by supporting this bill when it comes to us.
The current roles and responsibilities of the Minister of Health and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food would not change as a result of this legislation. Health Canada would still set policy and standards for food safety and nutritional quality. Health Canada would remain responsible for natural health products, which are not subject to this proposed legislation. The CFIA would still be responsible for enforcing food safety standards.
Here is why the legislation is so important. Currently regulations managed by the CFIA are governed by 13 different pieces of legislation. All of these acts were made into law over the past 50 years or more, and the requirements under these acts related to food sometimes vary. Over the past decades, new safety risks have emerged due to advancing science and technology, globalization and innovation. The world is changing and the food safety environment is becoming more and more complex. Canada's legislative framework needs to be modernized to reflect these changes.
Canada's legislation must also keep pace with its trading partners. We need to evolve our legislative base for food safety so that we can continue to protect Canadians from unsafe food and prevent Canadian food exports from being shut out of international markets.
Trade in food is on the rise. Demographics are changing. Consumer demand and expectations of governments are changing, and technology too. Canada's current approach of five different food safety acts leads to a cumbersome application of food safety regulations. We agree it needs to be changed.
We have one set of rules for meat and quite another for fish. That just does not make sense. The principles of how to produce safe food are not commodity specific. Regulated parties should not have to work from different rule books and, for that matter, neither should federal inspectors.
If the opposition members believe that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, they should support our government's legislation to make sure that CFIA has greater authorities. Canada's system is one of the best in the world and while we do have a strong food safety system, we can and should improve on the current authorities available to the government. This will better position us to face current and future risks and challenges.
In terms of exactly what the proposed legislation will do, there are two key outcomes: safer food and better protection for Canadians, and a more competitive environment for Canadian businesses involved in the food industry.
In terms of safer food, the legislation will provide stronger border measures, better protection from tampering and hoaxes, and higher fines for bad actors and unsafe practitioners in the food business. Indeed, speaking about our legislation, Nancy Croitoru, president and CEO of Food and Consumer Products of Canada, said:
|| [We] strongly support and applaud the federal government’s strong action to modernize Canada’s food safety laws.
That says it all. I want my colleagues in the opposition to heed these words and finally tell Canadians that they do indeed support safe food for Canadians.
Mr. Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to say that I am going to share my time with the hon. member for Burnaby—Douglas.
We are here to discuss a major issue. My thoughts are with the families affected by the tainted meat. That is why we are here tonight. We have heard a lot of background and many facts. What I would like to do tonight is get to the bottom of this, to get to the real heart of the problem. The heart of the problem comes down to two things: the Conservative government's lack of accountability and transparency, which resulted in the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board's refusal to assume his ministerial responsibility, among other things. There is also the matter of the cuts and the impact that the Conservative government's decisions have had on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Let us look back to April 2012. Hon. members will no doubt remember the budget, which was Bill C-38 at the time. The Conservative budget had a number of impacts. First, many public service jobs were eliminated, including—and this was announced in the media—the 825 employees who received a letter in April 2012 informing them that their job was in danger. Of these 825 people, 59 inspectors—people on the ground to investigate and to check the meat, among other things—received a letter confirming that their position had been eliminated. Approximately 40 other inspectors were expected to receive the same message as a result of the Conservative cuts.
A reporter from Postmedia News, Sarah Schmidt, asked the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board and the department a number of times to specify which positions would be affected by the cuts. She wanted to know whether veterinarians, people responsible for examining seed and inspectors would be affected. She repeatedly asked the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board these questions but never received an answer.
We could probably talk about the Parliamentary Budget Officer's repeated requests for details about the cuts announced by the Conservative government. The Conservatives refused to provide this information, despite the Accountability Act, which should force them to do it.
For a government that has made accountability and transparency its bread-and-butter issue since 2006, that is unacceptable and irresponsible.
What should we make of these 700 new inspectors mentioned time and again by each of the members who spoke this evening and, I would note, who repeated almost the same speech practically word for word. Once again, there are no details about these 700 new inspectors.
A Canadian Press journalist contacted the minister and the Department of Agriculture to obtain additional information, namely what kind of positions were included in these 700 new jobs. These are not 700 inspector jobs, and the Conservative government is deliberately trying to confuse the issue.
The Agriculture Union and the Public Service Alliance of Canada tried to find out the assignments for these 700 new inspectors. They did not get an answer. They managed to come up with an estimate. Of the 700 inspectors, 200 were assigned to monitor imports of invasive alien species, 330 were assigned to technical categories, such as seed examination, and 170 positions were inspectors assigned to processing plants, not slaughter houses.
The case of tainted meat that we are debating this evening occurred in a slaughter house and not in a processing plant.
That is an important distinction to make. Every single Conservative member who has spoken tonight has refused to address this issue and tried once again to confuse the matter.
In budget 2012, the government reduced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's budget by $56 million. It is in budget 2012 in black and white. The government boasted about having invested $51 million in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and said that there would be no budget cuts, that everything would be fine.
That $56 million represents real cuts. The $51 million, as the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands pointed out, was distributed among three agencies: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada. This $51 million was invested to renew existing food safety programs. These were not new investments. This money went to maintain an existing program, which was created after the listeriosis crisis that hit the country not too long ago, so that it could continue focusing on food safety. So this was not new money. It went towards an existing program. However, the $56 million was cut directly from the agency's funding.
This crisis could end up being a crisis of trust. The Conservatives are accusing us of fearmongering with this issue. We are not fearmongering. It is our role as official opposition to hold the government accountable for its decisions. The budget cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will have a significant impact.
What happened at XL Foods is the tip of the iceberg of what might happen if the government refuses to take responsibility, if the minister refuses to assume ministerial responsibility, which is absolutely essential in our parliamentary system, if the Conservatives continue to deny their responsibility in the budget cuts and to provide misleading information on the true state of things when it comes to meat inspections.
Repeating left and right that they added 700 new inspectors is not helping. No inspector was sent to XL Foods. What is more, one of the most problematic things about XL Foods is that there was a shortage of inspectors on the floor of the abattoir for a very long time. The union sounded the alarm many times about this. New positions may have been created, but not many. The Conservatives are talking about two or six inspectors, depending on who is talking. Those inspectors are filling existing positions that had become vacant. No new investment had been made for XL Foods.
The hon. member for Welland, our agriculture critic, was very clear about this. We are talking about a plant that sped up its processing line. It slaughters 4,000 to 5,000 head of cattle. There are 46 inspectors there, but they work two shifts. Twenty-three inspectors work one shift and the 23 other inspectors work the other shift, at a plant the size of several city blocks. It is a very large plant. Having 23 people on site at all times is just not enough, and XL Foods employees have to pick up the slack. It is absolutely irresponsible of the Conservatives to deny this fact and to try to hide it behind various figures.
I know there are Canadians still watching us this evening. It may be 11:10 p.m. here, but it is 8:10 p.m. in British Columbia and 9:10 p.m. in Alberta.
For the people watching us at home, whether in western Canada, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec or the Atlantic provinces, I simply wanted to point out that this is the government they are stuck with at the moment. The comments they have heard this evening demonstrate that this government is happy to throw around half-truths. They have a government that cares only about covering its butt when facing a crisis. They have a government that refuses to accept responsibility. Above all, they have a minister who refuses to accept his primary responsibility, his ministerial responsibility, whereby he should be assuming full responsibility for a tragedy like the one we are facing.
This government's first instinct when faced with a crisis like this one is to blame everyone else apart from the Conservative Party or the Conservative caucus, whether it be the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or the opposition parties. Quebec and Canada deserve better than that. As the official opposition, we have a duty to demand that the government be accountable and remain transparent, which it refused to do in all of the cases we have dealt with here, cases for which the Parliamentary Budget Officer is asking to see the specific data regarding the cuts to be made by the Conservatives. They refuse to provide that information.
It is the government's duty to accept responsibility for what happens, to stop hiding behind numbers, to stop spreading misinformation and, ultimately, to act for the health and well-being of all Canadians. Based on what I have heard here this evening, the government is still refusing to do so.