Mr. Malcolm Allen (Welland, NDP)
|| That, in light of the current contaminated meat scandal at XL Foods, and considering that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has not learned the lesson from the 2008 listeriosis scandal that cost twenty-two Canadians their lives, this House call on the government to restore Canadians’ confidence in Canada's food safety system by: (a) removing the current minister from office and assigning the food safety portfolio to a minister who can restore public trust; (b) reversing budget cuts and halting the de-regulation of Canada’s food safety system; (c) directing the Auditor General to conduct an immediate assessment of food safety procedures and resources and report his findings to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Berthier—Maskinongé.
I am pleased to speak today to our opposition day motion, inasmuch as it has a very serious tone to it from the perspective that one never takes lightly the position that calls for a minister of the Crown to step aside. It should never be taken lightly and, in this case, it is with a great deal of thought and understanding of this issue that this side has come forward with a motion to this House to seek the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. It lends one back to exactly why one would want to do that.
What is the food safety system all about? It is about a chain and, as we know, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link and, in this particular case, the weakest link in the chain was at a processing facility.
Cattlemen, producers and ranchers across the country have worked extremely hard over the last number of years, and, indeed, decades, to have a first-class industry that is recognized worldwide to be the best in the world. They have continued to do that. They, just like consumers who bought from the retail stores, have found themselves the unwilling victims of a processor. Some of the blame lays at the feet of the processing plant, without a doubt, especially those who were responsible for its inspection systems and not allowing them to happen.
We watched this crisis unfold over the weeks, and in fact we still see recalls happening. As of just the other night, CFIA put out another notice that said that another batch of meat from that facility had to be taken off the retail shelves. At the end of the day, it is the minister who is ultimately responsible for food safety and the food safety system. That is his responsibility and his alone.
Where we believe he failed in the system was not ensuring the Canadian public was treated in the same manner as we would treat anyone else. We decided on September 13 to stop meat shipments going to the Americans because of safety concerns, some that the Americans had identified and some that the minister said, in the House, that we identified in this country.
It is not just a question of saying that the Americans asked us to stop. We decided that because we found E. coli on September 4. Within 10 days, we said to our American counterparts that we would not send any more of this tainted beef to them. We did not do that for Canadians and yet this is a minister of the Crown in this country. He is not in the cabinet in the U.S. He belongs here. He is responsible to the House, to his constituents and ultimately to the Canadian public to ensure that our food system is safe. He failed miserably in that case.
Not only have we been putting questions to him on a constant basis, but we have seen some of the comments he has made publicly. His most recent was here in the House yesterday, which he apologized for, when he decided to describe the emergency debate as “silly”. I am not sure why one would suggest it was silly when we have a crisis of this magnitude.
What brought on the crisis? Why is CFIA finding itself in the place where it is?
There was an ongoing back and forth about money and numbers and all of the rest of it. However, what we do know is that the minister actually signed the document of planned spending for plans and priorities for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for this year, 2012-13, which said that its budget would decline by $46.6 million.
That is not me finding a page somewhere that someone else wrote. This is under the signature of the minister. The minister signed that $46.6 million would be taken away, would go into decline. He also said, in the same report that his signature is affixed to, that 314 full-time equivalents, FTEs in the jargon of human resource managers, will be eliminated in the next two years. It flies in the face of the government's assertions that we have 700 net new inspectors.
When we look at the absolute numbers, we can see in 2012-13 that the numbers are less than they were two years ago, as much as it pains me to say that. I know it pains the other side but the difficulty with numbers is that they are what they are. When the minister signs $46.6 million in cuts, it is his signature not this side's signature that has been tied to it.
Today it is kind of prophetic that we are getting a new implementation piece of the budget. If we look at the Conservatives' budget, we see that $56.1 million will be taken out of CFIA on a go-forward basis. That is also a decline. The minister is also responsible for that.
What other pieces and attributes of the system have gone wrong?
We know the compliance verification system is one of the backbones of the safety system. It was a pilot program started in 2005 that continued on right through 2008 when we had a listeriosis crisis. The minister today was the minister responsible then. Twenty-two people died in 2008 because of listeriosis and yet we were running a pilot program in CVS that was never verified.
There were two committees struck. One was a subcommittee of the agriculture committee of the House to study listeriosis, which I had the great pleasure of sitting on and looking at all of that. In addition, the government appointed an independent inquiry through Ms. Sheila Weatherill who decided to look at the same thing. Remarkably enough, the committee's and Ms. Weatherill's recommendations were very similar, minus a couple of differences here or there.
One of the things that Ms. Weatherill said had to happen was that there absolutely had to be an audit, not a review but an audit, of the compliance verification system for two reasons. First, it was a pilot program and it had to be proven that it actually worked. She said to make sure it does what it is supposed to do and that it will do what people think it will do. Second, figure out how much it needs to be resourced. If no one knows how much it needs to be resourced, it does not matter if it is actually the best system in the world. It would never work if it is not appropriately resourced.
What did we find out? The government will say that it had PricewaterhouseCoopers look at this. That is absolutely true; it did. It did a review. Let me quote Carole Swan, who is the former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. She told reporters that Agriculture Canada did not conduct a traditional audit. “They didn't conduct it as an audit”, Carole Swan said.
If the former president of CFIA says an audit was not conducted, I have to take her at her word because she was the president of the CFIA. She was tasked with getting the audit done and she said it was not done and that they just did a review.
If that is the case, at the very least one would think the government would want to make sure that the compliance verification system actually does what it thinks it does and that it is resourced to the extent it needs to be, whatever that resource capacity is. Because it has never been audited, we do not know. We do not know how many inspectors should be in meat hygiene plants. We do not have a clue because an audit was not done. The review counted the numbers, but it only gives a number.
That is why New Democrats say we need to it from base one. We cannot wait five years to do a review. What would we measure it against? We do not know what we started with. In five years we will have a baseline. We need a baseline today that actually says what this is all about.
What is needed here is leadership and what we have seen from the minister is a lack thereof. That is why the House needs to tell the minister that it is time to leave the portfolio and put it in the hands of someone who will show true leadership. This is not a first-time event, unfortunately, for the minister. It does not give me a great deal of satisfaction to stand in my place and ask for it.
This is not about what we should do or politics. It is not. It is about ministerial accountability. The minister now needs to stand in this place and say he understands what happened and that he is, indeed, stepping aside.
Ms. Ruth Ellen Brosseau (Berthier—Maskinongé, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to support the motion moved by my colleague from Welland, and I commend him for his hard work since the beginning of the E. coli crisis.
Today, to prepare myself, I reviewed the chronology of events in this crisis. There have been so many delays, so many unanswered questions, so many lapses and failures in the Minister of Agriculture's story that it was not an easy task.
Let us go over the main events in this crisis. On September 4, the CFIA and the United States discovered, at the same time, E. coli bacteria in beef from XL Foods. On September 13, XL Foods' American permit was revoked. The CFIA removed XL Foods from the list of companies that can export to the United States. However, it was not until September 16 that the first beef recall was issued. XL Foods' operating permit was suspended on September 27. These are huge delays when we are talking about Canadians' safety.
One of the things that upsets me the most about this crisis is the Minister of Agriculture's handling of it. Initially he stayed away from Ottawa, but then when he did show up, he just kept repeating talking points that did not answer anyone's questions. On September 26, he assured us that no tainted meat would end up on grocery store shelves. Less than one month later, 15 people became sick.
How could the Minister of Agriculture allow tainted meat to be sold at Canadian supermarkets after he imposed an export ban to prevent tainted meat from going to the United States? If the meat was not good enough for our neighbours, then why was it good enough for us? The minister had the authority to take immediate action, but he did not. He hid. He was not transparent and he did not take this crisis seriously.
Today, we are discovering that the U.S. had warned the CFIA a number of times over the past few years about major problems at XL Foods, such as poorly kept records, facilities that were primed for cross-contamination, equipment held together by duct tape and—plug your ears if you are squeamish—animal blood that was dripping onto meat products.
If a company has major problems, then the minister must take action. Instead of sounding the alarm as soon as he found out that the U.S. had doubts about the safety of the beef, the Minister of Agriculture did nothing, which is irresponsible.
Things like that make me wonder about ministerial accountability. The 2011 “Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State” says the following:
|| Ministerial accountability...require[s] that the minister attend to all matters in Parliament that concern any organizations for which he or she is responsible, including responding to questions. It further requires that the minister take appropriate corrective action to address any problems that may have arisen, consistent with the minister’s role with respect to the organization in question.
I do not believe that describes this minister's actions over the past 45 days, which is why I am joining my voice to that of my colleague from Welland to call for the Minister of Agriculture's resignation.
This week, I asked the minister how many people he allowed to get sick after September 13, the date when the minister protected U.S. consumers by banning the export across the border of meat from XL Foods, but left Canadians in the dark.
His answer was this:
||...that is a well-known number. Fifteen people have taken ill. They have all recovered, gone home and gone about their lives. That is the good side.
It is as though it is no big deal that these people got sick. I would like to describe the effects of an E.coli infection: severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often watery and may be bloody, vomiting and fever. Symptoms usually last five to seven days. That is not all. From 5% to 10% of all those who get sick from E. coli and about 15% of young children and the elderly develop a syndrome that can be fatal. Some people have seizures or strokes and some need blood transfusions or kidney dialysis. Others live with side effects such as permanent kidney damage.
But that is okay. I should not worry because the worst did not happen. We were lucky. The fact remains that this is not the way to prevent other incidents like this from occurring—far from it. Canadians have to be able to have confidence in their food inspection system. If the Minister of Agriculture is not able to reassure Canadians, he should let somebody else take over.
This week, I asked the minister if he had a plan to help the cattle industry. Two thousand plant employees were laid off. Since then, 800 of them have been called back to work, but where is the assistance plan? There is still nothing. The minister told me that solutions would be found in the future.
The NDP is proposing that the Auditor General conduct an audit of food safety procedures right away and submit a report to Parliament. We cannot wait five years for this audit. It must be done right away so that Canadians can once again have confidence in the food inspection system. This is a necessity, not just for producers but also for families, who have to be able to have confidence in Canadian products.
The Auditor General said that he would issue a report on the food recall in the spring of 2013. We applaud this effort, since tracing is an important issue for Canadians.
We have been waiting for a compliance verification of the food inspection system, as the Weatherill report on the listeriosis crisis recommended. Twenty-two Canadians lost their lives during that crisis in 2008.
This situation is no accident. The Minister of Agriculture's accountability goes further than that. Not only did he mismanage this crisis, but he also undermined the CFIA's ability to do its job and increased chances that such incidents would happen.
If the CFIA has fewer inspectors and resources, how can Canadians have confidence in the food inspection system? What happened at XL Foods revealed that there are flaws in the system. I cannot imagine what will happen when the CFIA is weakened even more.
Every time the opposition expresses concern, the government responds that it has hired 700 net new inspectors since 2006. That figure is misleading. What the government is not saying is that this total includes hundreds of people whose job has nothing to do with protecting Canadians from unsafe food products. For example, the total includes 200 inspectors who were added to the invasive alien species program, which was designed to keep potentially dangerous species out of Canada and not to protect Canadians from unsafe food. Furthermore, the 170 new meat inspectors were hired after the listeriosis crisis and inspect only processed meat.
We need better resources, but we must also ensure that inspections are done well and that businesses have a culture of accountability when it comes to food safety.
The CFIA's report on plans and priorities, signed and tabled by the Minister of Agriculture himself on May 8, 2012, said, “Planned Spending is declining by approximately $46.6 million and 314 FTE’s from 2012–13 to 2014–15.”
The Minister of Agriculture approved these cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency budget. If he has the power to make those kinds of cuts, he also has the power to restore the system. It is his responsibility to do so. We are calling for his resignation.
Hon. Gerry Ritz (Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to address the House on the important issue of food safety. While this issue should not be construed as political, we are in fact here today to debate a highly charged political motion brought forward by the NDP.
That said, I welcome any opportunity to bring light to the positive record of this government in supporting food safety. I welcome the opportunity to remind Canadians of the abysmal record of the NDP when it comes to providing funding that keeps our food safe.
The motion gives me the opportunity to correct much of the fear-mongering by the opposition on an issue so important to Canadian families.
As always, Canadian consumers remain this government's number one priority when it comes to food safety. Canadians and customers around the world have come to rely on the high quality and safety standards of Canadian foods. Food safety is critically important to Canadian consumers.
That is why our government works to ensure that both the CFIA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and industry itself deliver on these expectations. We remain committed to making food as safe as possible for our consumers. Canadians know that industry, government agencies and consumers themselves must play a part right from the farm gate to their plate to ensure that food safety.
Overall, the results of our food safety system are largely positive. Since our government took office the number of cases of E. coli 0157 illnesses among Canadians has been cut in half. That is a great start. We will work to reduce that number even further.
Since March 2006 we have increased CFIA field inspection staff by more than 700 personnel. That includes 170 personnel dedicated to meat inspection.
We have also provided significant funding, including over $50 million in budget 2012. That builds on the investment of $100 million in budget 2011 to improve our overall food safety system.
While the NDP claims to support food safety, its track record says otherwise. The NDP opposed both of these budgets outright, and while doing so opposed our important investments in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Just because the party did not support them, does not mean they are not there. How can the NDP members claim that our government is not doing enough when, if they had it their way, the CFIA would not have received a single penny of these funds?
The NDP, in particular the member for Welland, have a track record of misleading Canadians. Just last spring that very member accused our farmers of trying to put roadkill on the plates of Canadian families, and since then has been forced to back down, as he should.
While the opposition grandstands, our government continues to provide the CFIA with the resources it needs to protect Canadian foodstuffs. In addition, we have addressed all 57 recommendations of the Weatherill report to strengthen the food safety system for Canadians. We have made good progress but as we saw with the XL Foods situation, we must continue to make sure our system is more robust.
That is why last spring, based on extensive consultations with Canadians, industry and others, our government introduced Bill S-11, the safe food for Canadians act, to strengthen our food safety system even further. The bill passed the Senate last night and I look forward to debating it here in the House. I urge all members to give this legislation careful attention and to move it forward expeditiously, as they say they will. The safety of Canadians is not a matter of scoring political points; it is of vital importance to Canadians and our overseas consumers as well.
This is why I find it puzzling that the member for Welland will not confirm his support for this important piece of legislation. He had a chance this morning and came up short. I urge him to stand in the House today and confirm for Canadian families that he will, once and for all, vote to improve food safety.
The safe food for Canadians act would strengthen and modernize our food safety system to make sure that it continues to provide safe food for Canadians. It is not an exercise in deregulation. Indeed, the bill would provide additional food safety oversight, investigation and enforcement, not less. The bill would give the CFIA the ability to compel industry to produce timely and usable information when requested. That is a major point.
Bill S-11 would also allow for the creation of traceability systems, which would help speed up investigations and recalls in situations like the recent one at XL Foods. The proposed safe food for Canadians act would also improve food safety oversight by instituting a more consistent inspection regime across all food commodities, providing better controls over imports and strengthening overall food traceability. We can see how important it is to trace products from the farm gate to Canadians' plates, and in the event of an incident like this, to do it efficiently and effectively. This proposed regulation-making authority would help the agency in its efforts to quickly remove recalled products from our marketplace.
The bill would also implement tougher fines of up to $5 million for intentional activities putting the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Food producers are legally responsible for producing safe food. It is their job to do what is right and it is the CFIA's job to make sure that the processors follow through.
As I mentioned previously, the regulations under the bill would also ensure that a company provides documentation in a form that can be easily understood, thus reducing time lost in seeking clarifications.
While strengthening food safety for Canadians, the safe food for Canadians bill will also help Canada's agricultural industry, which drives Canada's economy with over $44 billion in exports and one in eight jobs for Canadians. It would further align Canada's food safety systems with our key trading partners' and increase importing countries' confidence in Canadian food commodities through expanded export certificates.
Finally, to help ensure that imported food commodities meet our high standards, this same bill would strengthen controls over imported food commodities and introduce powers to be able to license all food importers. This bill is good for Canadian families. It would strengthen and modernize our food safety system and help our agriculture and food industry to continue to drive Canada's economy.
In regard to the hon. member's motion, the CFIA continues working to verify that the plant in question has put corrective measures in place and is following those measures to effectively control possible E. coli contamination at all stages of production. Once the agency is confident in the food safety controls at establishment 38, they will thoroughly review the situation to determine what improvements to Canada's food safety system can be made.
While the NDP and the Liberals would like to dictate what the Auditor General does, on this side of the House we respect the Auditor General's independence. In fact, the Auditor General already has the authority to audit any federal agency he sees fit, including the CFIA. That is very important.
Some of the comments I have been hearing from hon. members would lead us to believe that they have no idea what happens during a food recall. Although the members opposite do not like to hear it, when a food recall happens or is continued, it shows that our robust system is working. When a food recall gets under way, the CFIA literally works around the clock to get the products off the shelf as fast and as comprehensively as it can.
The agency is committed to providing accurate, useful information as quickly as possible to inform the public about products that may also be in their fridges or freezers at home.
We must help the hon. members across the aisle separate fact from fiction. The opposition will stand today and try to scare Canadians with talk about cuts to food safety. Canadians need to be assured that no such cuts exist or are contemplated. In fact our government has increased the budget of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency by some 20% since taking office.
The opposition will also claim that we are reducing the number of inspectors. As I stated earlier, we have hired over 700 net new inspectors. At the XL facility in Brooks, we have increased the number of inspectors by 20% in recent years. We have done all of this without one ounce of support from the opposition. That is sad.
Canadian families need to know the truth when it comes to food safety. Going back to the beginning to when the problems were first revealed, the CFIA discovered E. coli in a beef product on September 4. This product, discovered in a secondary processing facility, had originated from XL in Brooks. The agency acted to contain the specific affected product on that date and has been acting ever since.
At that time there was no evidence that any additional product had been affected. On that very same day, the CFIA was also informed that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service had discovered E. coli in a sample of beef trimmings that had also originated from that same plant. Those particular meat products were destroyed.
To repeat, at that time there was no evidence that any additional product had been affected or had been placed on store shelves. That is the famous quote they keep misquoting. Thus, no recall was needed. We had it all.
The CFIA immediately launched a full investigation into the causes of the problem on September 4 and has been acting ever since. With the onset of the CFIA investigation, inspectors stepped up their oversight of operations within the plant. At that point, there was still no definitive evidence that any other product was affected or in the marketplace. The Public Health Agency of Canada had been called and begun an assessment with its provincial colleagues. There were no confirmed illnesses before our recalls were initiated. Risk factors were, however, being investigated and evidence was being gathered by both the CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The CFIA acted swiftly to address the problem once it was discovered. It was discovered by our own inspectors during routine testing. As my hon. colleagues are well aware, XL Foods has taken full responsibility and shown a renewed commitment to working with the CFIA through this situation.
The speed at which XL Foods begins normal operations is solely dependent on its ability to demonstrate to the CFIA that it can produce safe food. We recognize that the company wants to return to normal operations as soon as possible, but the CFIA has a responsibility to ensure that the plant will produce safe food going forward under any management team. Canadian consumers have the right to that assurance, and it is CFIA's responsibility to provide it.
To correct another piece of fiction spread by the opposition, it has been said that budget 2012 cut CFIA's inspection capacity, which led to this facility being under-resourced. That is absolutely, categorically false. In the case of this particular XL Foods facility, CFIA inspection staffing levels have actually gone up by some 20%, not down.
In fact, our government's budget last year, as I said, committed $100 million over five years for the CFIA to modernize its overall food inspection system. That included new resources to improve inspection delivery, increased training for inspection staff, scientific capacity in food laboratories and information management and new technology.
All the while our government continues to invest in food safety. To cite just a few examples of the kinds of strategic investments we are making in food safety from the farm gate to the plate, we have allocated $6.6 million for the Canadian Pork Council to develop the national swine traceability system, over $950,000 to help the Canadian Pork Council strengthen the national on-farm food safety system for its industry, and over $4.5 million to help the Canadian Cattlemen Identification Agency to strengthen overall livestock traceability.
I would also add that these strategic investments are a great example of more things to come.
As members know, last month in the Yukon the ministers of agriculture agreed to invest $3 billion over the next five years in proactive programs in the areas of innovation, competitiveness and market development. This will include continued support for the development and strengthening of food safety systems and the overall traceability of foodstuffs.
The bottom line is that Canadian consumers and their families have always been and will continue to be the Government of Canada's first priority when it comes to food safety. Whether through Bill S-11, Safe Food for Canadians Act, or our investments that I have outlined here, our government will continue to build a world-class food safety system that safeguards Canadian consumers.
The motion today does nothing to support food safety. It is purely politically driven. I encourage the member for Welland and his colleagues to cease this partisanship and finally do something constructive to support food safety and the industry. He can do that by supporting Bill S-11 as a start.
Hon. Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to this motion, which is a timely one, It follows up on the emergency debate the Liberals had asked for a few nights ago.
This is all about the responsibility for the safety of the food that Canadians eat. Canadians need to know they can buy food, eat it and not get sick when they buy it from a reputable grocery store or from a place where they know the food has been inspected and has a CFIA stamp. That is how the system is supposed to work. The responsibility of governments is all about that.
In the case of food-borne illness, in the case of food safety, there are three groups in the government that are responsible to ensure there is safe food in our country. The first is the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. The second is the Minister of Health. The third is the Public Health Agency of Canada. The three of them, working together, are responsible to ensure that the food we eat is safe.
There is even a written protocol. When there is any question of the safety of food, when there is any hint of contamination of food, this protocol kicks in and implicates these three departments. It gives them very clear guidelines as what their role is and what they are supposed to do.
Ultimately, this issue is about the health and safety of Canadians and their confidence that the government, which is responsible for that, is on the job and on the watch.
Let us look at how the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, who is one of the people responsible for the safety of the food we eat, has handled this.
The minister has mishandled the file from the word go, and for very many reasons.The minister could not give us clear answers. He loves to stand in the House and blame everyone for ratcheting up the noise and for creating anxiety among Canadians. Canadians are anxious because they are not getting answers, because they are not getting very clear assurances about the food they eat. This is at the heart of the problem.
The three groups responsible, the Public Health Agency, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, should be out there every day, if necessary. We saw that happen with the SARS outbreak and with the BSE incident. The Liberal minister of agriculture and agri-food at the time was out there telling people what was going on, everything that was being done and keeping Canadians in the loop. This is at the heart of the problem. Not only could we not get any answers, we could not get the truth. We could not get any rationale for why there were no answers and how and why this happened.
I want to look at the facts.
This was not the first time that the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service had to notify CFIA about Canada's food safety, especially with regard to beef, chicken, et cetera. It seems that Canada cannot not take care of this problem. We have to depend on the Americans to help us out.
Reports show that the CFIA was sent reports by the United States Food Safety and Inspection Service several times in the last 10 years regarding deficiencies found in Canada's meat processing plants, including XL Foods.
The Liberals were in power when this problem was flagged in July 2003. We immediately delisted XL Foods and told it that it had to fix things. Then, when it fixed things in 2004, it was reinstated and put back on the list.
In 2004 the CFIA and the United States looked at the plant and found there were some new problems. At that time, the Liberal government minister warned the plant and told it that it had 30 days to fix it. It was reinstated again in 2005 and everything seemed to be going right.
The U.S. was concerned at the time, and still is, that we were not tracking the trends. Everybody knows that in food processing there is always going to be E. coli and various contaminants because of the nature of the product itself. One is supposed to trend track.
There should always be random testing to make sure there are no sudden rises in super-shedders within the cattle, which are suddenly bringing in large amounts of pathogenic E. coli. That is supposed to be done on a regular basis. The U.S. does it. We do not, even though we have been asked to do it. Of American processing companies, 75% do that. We do not. Why did the CFIA not begin to take action when the government came on the watch in 2006 and the American food safety group told it that this was continuing to happen? It did nothing.
In May of this year, the United States told the CFIA that it was not tracking the trends for E. coli, and we got no answer for that. Here we found that it continued to ask the question and had to do the tracking itself. Having done that tracking itself, that is how it found out that we were having problems on September 4 and flagged it for us because we were not on the watch. The government was not doing its job. It was not watching what was going on.
Therefore, it took 13 days for the government to pay attention after the September 4 notification by the U.S. inspectors. We did not even find that it did bracketing in those 13 days. When it did the recall on September 16, which was 13 days later, it did not bracket. That is an important part of recalling a food. The shipments that went prior to and after the knowledge that the food was contaminated are recalled so that people do not buy it, put it in their fridges and freezers and leave it there not knowing, thinking that it was only from the date the recall was given and onwards that there was a problem. That was not done.
Then it was another two full weeks before the plant was shut down, by which time that food had gone out into the retail grocery chains and was in people's fridges, in small butcher shops and everywhere. People were buying it continuing to believe, as Canadians do, that the government was on the watch and that their food was safe.
I want to hear an answer from the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food as to why it took him two weeks—and we still have not got that answer—why he did not bracket, and why he allowed that food to go out into the food chain, where we do not know who has that food in their freezers right now. It is not a good enough answer to say that people should cook the food properly or, as we heard in the last debate from the parliamentary secretary across the way, that if everyone washes their hands everything will be fine. This is the kind of stuff we are hearing. There is no question here of a sense of responsibility for Canadians, none at all.
That was the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food who completely mismanaged the whole thing. Now we will look at the role of the Minister of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
What should have happened was this. Health Canada is responsible for something called a health risk assessment, which states that it must be completed “in a rapid and timely manner in order to ensure that appropriate risk management decisions are taken to prevent contaminated food from reaching the consumer”. The Canadian mom and dad out there who are cooking steaks on the barbecue must be prevented from getting that contaminated food. That is from the Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol, which is normally called FIORP. So when I mention FIORP from now on, members will know that I am talking about a protocol written up, agreed upon and signed by those three departments that were responsible.
There was no rapid and timely manner in which that appropriate risk management was taken, or if it was taken it did not get out to the consumer at all. We did not hear about it until September 26, which was two weeks later. We suddenly heard on the Health Canada and Public Health Agency of Canada websites that there was a problem. In the meantime, 15 people had become ill.
What immediately triggers the Minister of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada to get involved is that a person gets sick. One person has to get sick. It does not say that a person dies; it says a person gets sick and there is reason to believe or to suspect that there is a potential for more people to get sick.
We know that XL Foods processes 40% of the food in this country. We know it took two weeks for the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to actually even recall. We know it took him a further two weeks, in which this was all over the food retail stores.
Why is it that the Minister of Health did not get out there? The Minister of Health remains silent. There is a deafening silence from the Minister of Health and the Public Health Agency. They get in when a person gets sick. They get in when there is reason to believe that an illness will go across the country, not when people die, not when we have 25 or 30 people sick; there is no magic number. It is said that it is when it reaches over one province. Well, we know that the extent of that food going out in the food chain was across this country. It was not limited to Alberta alone. So the word here is “potential” and we have no explanation at all as to why the silence and as to why this was not done. There is a four-year-old child with kidney failure. As far as we know right now, 15 people are sick from this E. coli outbreak.
The point is this. If we have seniors, young children and immunocompromised people eating that food, they have a higher risk of dying. Healthy people eating it can get very sick and hopefully get better. So it is only a matter of sheer luck that no one died. It is not because of good care. It is not because of good handling on the file. It is simply sheer luck as to who ate this. The Minister of Health was slow to respond and she was silent. She knew about the contamination.
The minute someone gets sick, does not die but just gets sick, and it crosses over one province, the Public Health Agency of Canada takes the lead right away as per the FIORP. The protocol says:
|| Once a potential multi-jurisdictional food-borne illness outbreak has come to the attention of public health or food regulatory agencies, there is a requirement...
That is a requirement, not a “maybe should”. It goes on:
||...to examine the current available information and determine if it is sufficient to indicate the presence of a potential multi-jurisdictional food-borne illness outbreak that requires a collaborative and coordinated investigation and the activation of an OICC....
That is an Outbreak Investigation Coordinating Committee.
The FIORP OICC should be activated when the investigation and response to the identified potential multi-jurisdictional risk of human contamination “...is known or has the potential to be related to a widely-distributed food product”. Read: XL, 40% of the processing of food. How much wider can we get when that food goes all across this country?
We are saying that they have mismanaged the file as well, from the perspectives of the Minister of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada. The reason the Public Health Agency has to take the lead as soon as a person gets sick is that it has been given the funding to have the capacity and the resources that can be mobilized immediately to assist in the investigation of food-borne illness outbreaks and for surveillance and tracking.
Surveillance and tracking is not just about checking where the meat went. It is in letting every emergency department and all the health professionals and hospitals across this country know that anybody who presents with an illness that is an enteric illness in this case, abdominal illness caused by food, gastroenteritis or whatever we want to call it, that those cases should be reported immediately to decide whether they are linked to this particular thing. That is what surveillance is, and it did not happen, or if it did happen, nobody knew about it, including the people who were supposed to be informed. This again is mismanagement of the file.
Has the current government learned nothing from Walkerton? I say the “current government” because there are three ministers currently on the front benches of the government who were there and had responsibility for what went on with Walkerton. The Minister of Finance, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of the Treasury Board were there. What the audit on Walkerton says, from the O'Connor inquiry, is that Walkerton happened because of government cuts to food inspection, government cuts to water inspection and privatizing of the system in order to save money. This is what we are talking about. We have to save money when we have a deficit, but we have to save it in places where we know people are not going to get sick, and we do not put Canadians at risk. Did the Conservatives learn nothing from the listeriosis outbreak that occurred in 2008?
We got all of the information from the Weatherill report after that listeriosis outbreak, and the Weatherill report said the same thing that the Walkerton inquiry said. It said that there should be tracking, that the three ministers have to be involved, et cetera. Nothing happened. Four years later, we are facing the same problem because the government went ahead and laid off 200 inspectors since March. The Parliamentary Budget Officer tells us that $16 million is being directly cut from food safety and that there has been a $56.1 million cut to CFIA. This is from the Parliamentary Budget Office; I am not making this up.
The point is that not only did the government not learn from Walkerton but it ignored the Weatherill report that talked about tracking. It did not track the trends in any of the food systems looking for blips and outbreaks. It did not do any of that. It refused to listen to the U.S. that was warning it. We listened when it warned us in 2003, 2004 and 2005. We recalled, we pulled back and de-listed the company. As soon as 2006 came along and the Conservatives became government, they started to ignore it.
We listened to the minister say that everything is great and the government did a wonderful job. There is a saying in medicine. The greatest hospital in the world can have all the right equipment and the most well-trained doctors, surgeons, physicians, nurses and anesthetists who operate on a patient. People can say, “What a successful operation; look at the beauty of the work that was done and all the equipment we have”, but if the operation was a success and the patient died, then the operation was not a success.
The minister can say he has 46 people, 6 veterinarians, has added 200 people to the list and we have all the bells and whistles. It did not work. The operation might have been a success, but the patient died. Even though no one died, the outcome was a failure. That is what we are talking about: the outcome of what was being done. If it failed, it did not work. I do not know how else to say it. If it failed, it failed. If it did not work, it did not work. I do not care what there is in an operating room or anywhere else. If a patient dies, the operation was not a success. Therefore, this is not a success and we do not have answers.
We have snarky comments, snide remarks, smart-alecky, drive-by little insults being used, when the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and the Minister of Health should be standing in the House and giving some form of apology with some humility and saying, “We fell down on the job, we are sorry, mea culpa, and we are going to make sure it does not happen again”. That is what we want from a government.
We saw what the Liberals did when they were in power with the BSE crisis. The minister was out there taking it on the chin but, at the same time, informing the public about what was going on. That is called responsible government; that is called transparency; that is actually caring about what one's department is supposed to do, caring about the outcomes and not constantly hiding behind all kinds of language and excuses. The mistake was made. Parliament should know what happened and the people of Canada should know, because confidence in food safety in this country has taken a blow. Not only that. It has hurt the food processing industry in this country; it has hurt farmers who now do not have the ability to get their steers to the processing plants. They are, therefore, paying the cost of leaving them in the field. They are also finding that the price of grain has gone up. That is costing them.
We are saying that everyone is hurting because of the lack of ability of the government to take responsibility, be up front and tell people so we can get the confidence back in our meat processing system and so the United States will know that we are on the ball, because it does not think we are, and we have not been for a length of time. They have to look over us like a parent looking over a recalcitrant child who is not doing what he or she is told. This is unacceptable. The Minister of Health's silence is unacceptable. The fact is that no one has stood up and assured the people of Canada that the CFIA will enforce the same rigorous food safety standards that everyone should expect of a government.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food stated:
|| Canadian consumers can be assured that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will enforce the same rigorous food safety standards at Lakeside facility regardless of the management.
He said “the same rigorous food safety standards”. I have to sit down at that and ask what same rigorous food safety standards. I do not have any confidence. The same problems are going to be repeated.
Mr. Alex Atamanenko (British Columbia Southern Interior, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Newton—North Delta.
I thank my colleague from Welland, our current agriculture critic, for his hard work on this file. Just as he worked diligently on the listeriosis outbreak file, he has been on top of this file meeting with producers and asking the hard questions. His back-up staff, Katie and Rosa, have put a tremendous package together for us, information-wise, and I thank them for that.
This is a debate about a crisis. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and I, both in my former role as critic and now, have had a good working relationship. I feel that I can address concerns to him, which I have done, whether it is in regard to food growers, organic growers or others, and he is there to respond.
However, this is not about that. This is about a serious mistake that was made by him and his department, which is why we are here today. Let us look at some of the timelines that have been gone over and will continue to be discussed here.
On September 3, a shipment of beef from XL Foods tested positive for E. coli at the border. On September 4, the CFIA identified positive E. coli 0517:H7 at XL Foods.
On September 7, XL Foods was formally requested to produce detailed information related to products as soon as but no later than September 10. This was six days after the positive findings of E. coli.
On September 13, the CFIA finally removed XL Foods from the list of establishments eligible to export to the U.S. However, and this is important and interesting, there was still no recall in Canada.
On September 16, we had beef recall number one, the first one. That was 13 days after U.S. officials discovered E. coli.
On September 25, the minister is quoted as saying:
|| The work with the CFIA to adjudicate the paperwork at XL Foods is being done so that it can start getting back into that lucrative American market just as quickly as possible.
|| I reiterate that none of the product made it to store shelves....
That is what he said but we found out that the health department and the CFIA determined that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that steaks purchased at Costco Wholesale in Edmonton were actually the vehicle for four cases of human illness.
On October 4, XL Foods finally issued a press release and took full responsibility for the recalled meat. This was the first statement on its behalf.
As we go through this, we can look at the implications. The basic conclusion is that the system, as it applied to XL Foods, was not working. I would like to go a bit further to say that this is a symptom of a major disease that I see coming from that side of the House: the disease of de-regulation, industrial self-regulation.
In the last Trojan Horse omnibus bill, we saw all sorts of provisions to gut the whole environmental review process, to be able to streamline the northern gateway pipeline, taking fish habitat out of the Fisheries Act, and all of this in the name of industry self-regulation, guided by, which I would say seems to be driving the government, the whole Milton Friedman philosophy of de-regulation, privatization and less government.
Budget cuts to the CFIA must be cancelled. That agency must be given the resources it needs to fulfill its mandate for Canadians, that is, to ensure the safety of all food in the food industry.
The Conservatives advocated for increased self-regulation, but now, inspectors are examining paperwork rather than meat. The problems in our food safety system are a direct result of this government's incompetence, and now Canadians are paying the price.
The consumer can now and in the future choose not to eat beef. Obviously we can survive, there are other foods people can eat. However, a cattle producer cannot choose to turn around and start producing something else or go elsewhere. Once again, the farmer has taken the hit because of inadequate oversight by the government in collaboration with industry. That is what has happened here. It is a tough enough market for producers. They do not need this.
The idea that 700 net new food inspectors have been added to the ranks of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is wrong and misleading. This total includes hundreds whose work has nothing to do with protecting Canadians from unsafe food products. For example, the total includes 200 inspectors added to the invasive alien species program, which is designed to keep harmful organisms out of Canada, not safeguard Canadians from unsafe food products.
In fact, since 2006, not a single meat hygiene slaughter program inspector, except to fill vacancies, has been added to the CFIA ranks. There are actually so few inspectors at XL Foods and production is so high, over 4,000 cattle per day, that responsibility for ensuring sanitary conditions at the plant have been handed to the company. As a result of staff cuts in the spring, CFIA will lose 308 positions, many of whom are food inspectors.
Let us move on to a parallel industry, the horse slaughter industry. There are certain drugs that are banned from the food chain in animals. When an animal is given a drug once in its lifetime, that meat is no longer fit for human consumption. Phenylbutazone, which we call the horses' Aspirin, is taken by approximately 80% of the horses in North America at some point in their lifetimes. This only has to happen once and, according to our guidelines, that meat is no longer fit for human consumption.
Over 50,000 horses are imported from the U.S. annually for slaughter in one of our four slaughterhouses. Sporadic checks are made, but every horse is not inspected and the checks that are made are made on muscle tissue, whereas experts say that the kidneys are what should be analyzed.
Aunt Molly sends her race horses in the United States to go to auction, they are bought by killer buyers, shipped under horrendous conditions to Canada, often with falsified documents, and then put in the food chain and the meat is exported mainly to Europe. We know that Phenylbutazone, according to science, has been linked to aplastic anemia in children and other diseases. This is another example of what I consider sloppy oversight on the part of the CFIA. Make no mistake, we can pass the buck to the bureaucracy and I have heard this often at committee. However, the bureaucracy takes its direction from the political head, the minister. That is how it works in our system.
GMO is another example. A recent study called “GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops”. One of the findings by scientists is that GMOs can be toxic, allergic and less nutritious than natural food, yet we never hear of our government taking a precautionary principle to study this.
I would like to close with a couple of statements, one by Bob Kingston of the union representing the inspectors. He said that the CFIA did not have the resources in place to fully understand what was going on in the plant at that time. After all, the minister had assured everyone that there were more inspectors working at the plant. He went on to say:
|| You will be interested to know that at the XL plant only a small portion of inspectors are fully trained in [compliance verification system].
I will conclude by saying, yes, this is a crisis and we need to get to the bottom of it. The minister has to take responsibility to ensure that Canadians continue to have safe food in their food supply and that farmers do not take another hit somewhere down the line because some other plant is closed due to the plant not listening to the union's safety concerns or to having safety oversight in the plant.
Ms. Jinny Jogindera Sims (Newton—North Delta, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, first of all, I want to acknowledge the work done by my colleague for Welland. He has handled this file in a very professional manner. He has been very thorough in his research and in keeping all of us updated.
It is difficult to ask for the resignation of a minister. It is not a step that we take lightly. However, we have today a motion that reads:
|| That, in light of the current contaminated meat scandal at XL Foods, and considering that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has not learned the lesson from the 2008 listeriosis scandal that cost twenty-two Canadians their lives, this House call on the government to restore Canadians’ confidence in Canada's food safety system by: (a) removing the current minister from office and assigning the food safety portfolio to a minister who can restore public trust—
Those are heavy words for us to raise here and I want to focus on the history.
This is the same Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food who was in charge of the portfolio when we had the listeriosis crisis in 2008. One would think that after all the recommendations that came out to avoid another food disaster that the minister would have made it his top priority. However, obviously not, since here we are years later facing another situation where public health is being placed at risk.
We have a minister who finds it difficult to take his portfolio seriously. During the previous disaster when 22 Canadians died, he joked during that time. I am a teacher and if someone makes a mistake I hope that they learn from it. However, Canadians cannot keep giving this minister chance after chance to learn because it puts Canadians' safety at risk. That is just not acceptable.
It took this minister 14 days after the Americans had already pulled the beef and told us that there was a problem. It took him that long to implement a major recall.
As members know, we are facing the largest recall of our beef in our history. We have over 15 cases of E. coli all traced back to the XL Foods meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta, and the agency has recalled 1,800 beef products. The recall extends to every province and territory, 40 states in the U.S. and 20 other countries.
What is absolutely amazing to me is that, despite all of this, the Prime Minister has left that portfolio in the hands of the minister. That baffles me beyond belief.
More than that, knowing all of this, we have a minister who has not demonstrated ministerial accountability by taking responsibility and stepping aside. Therefore, it is left up to the opposition to move this issue forward.
We are very concerned not only about our farmers and cattle ranchers who have raised this beef but also about the employees in Alberta. Whole communities are being devastated.
When looking at all of this, people in most walks of life would think that the minister would step forward. Instead, on October 1, we had the minister, not having learned from the crisis in 2008, at a Rotary Club in North Battleford, saying:
|Is there an epidemic of E. coli outbreaks? Turns out there's not.
|| We’re actually 40 per cent lower than we were three years ago, which is great news, because we’re doing more testing, better testing and industry has stepped up and is doing a much better job.
Then, the most disturbing thing, when the Americans had already informed us that they were pulling our beef because of E. coli and we know that we had an E. coli situation right here in Canada, was the minister saying this:
|| We had some great Canadian beef for lunch. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t care. I know it’s good, I know it’s safe. You have to handle it and cook it properly. Certainly, we’ve identified some anomalies....
That is utterly irresponsible.
This is the same minister who was not present to answer questions during debate. That is the time we need the minister up front, reassuring the public that he has things in hand. However, we have a minister who, instead, was out there making lighthearted jokes about the E. coli breakout, assuring people it was perfectly safe if only they cooked the meat properly and, as another minister later said, washed their hands.
That is absolutely outrageous.
As I said, if this were the first incident, where the minister was new to the portfolio or did not know too much and was on a learning curve, we could maybe give him some space. However, this is the same minister who in 2008 made a joke. I am sure he must have been admonished at that time, but he did not learn a lesson from that nor implement any of the issues raised at that time.
If we consider the food inspection that takes place at the XL Foods plant, we know first of all that it is a huge meat processing plant. It covers many city blocks, I have been told. I have not been there but I am still quite impressed by its size, from what I have read.
We trusted XL Foods to do a lot of its own supervision. I am sorry, but when it comes to food inspection, the Canadian government has a major role to play.
UFCW Local 401 said in its report of October 10 that it had some major concerns, including that the line speeds were way too fast, that in order to speed up production, the conveyor belts had been speeded up. They went on to mention the lack of proper training and that although people were trained to sterilize knives between cuts, they were discouraged to do so because it would slow down production.
I would also point out that a third of the workers at this plant are temporary foreign workers and the staff turnover at this plant is huge as a result. Because it is so huge, I am worried about the kind of training that is given and the kind of investment that is made in training the staff.
In any event, I want to get back to why we are here today. We are here today for one simple reason: we do not need another disaster like this. We have a minister who, under his watch, with the portfolio in his hands, has now had a second major disaster. It is time for the minister to take responsibility and admit he has not learned the lesson of 2008. He failed this time and needs to resign as minister.
Mr. Pierre Lemieux (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak to the motion, as misguided as it is. I reiterate what the hon. Minister of Agriculture said earlier today, that our government does not support the motion and fully rejects its premise.
I will speak first about the XL Foods situation and correct some of the many misconceptions the opposition has been communicating.
First, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on September 4 and has been acting ever since in the case of XL Foods. It continues to take comprehensive action in response to the E. coli issue. CFIA continues to rely on science-based evidence and a commitment to protect consumers.
These decisions are made on the basis of precise and compelling scientific evidence, and a prudent approach, in order to protect consumers. However, scientific evidence is not obtained instantaneously. The agency takes action as soon as it is notified of a problem in order to provide people with timely and precise information as the situation evolves, information that helps consumers decide what to do.
When the CFIA discovered the presence of E. coli bacteria on September 4 at the Alberta packing plant, it immediately took action to protect consumers. The agency immediately initiated an in-depth review, which led to the discovery of certain deficiencies at the XL Foods plant.
The in-depth review of plant operations led CFIA to conclude that a combination of several deficiencies played a role. As soon as these issues were detected, the company began recalling products and we alerted the public. We fully recognize that when it comes to food, consumers expect that the products on grocery store shelves are safe.
The CFIA tries to meet this expectation at all times. When a problem occurs, the agency seeks to identify the affected products and inform consumers. It conducts a transparent investigation and publishes the information on its website as soon as it becomes available. People can also sign up to be notified by email or Twitter about recalls and food safety issues.
In an investigation of this kind the facts emerge through rigorous investigation, sampling, testing and interviewing. The agency cannot act in the absence of clear evidence, but once the facts become known they are shared with Canadians.
All of this information is available on CFIA's website at www.inspection.gc.ca, which I encourage all members of the House, the media and the public to visit to look at the timeline and the commonly asked questions section. It will certainly correct the misconceptions and the myths the opposition is communicating.
This leads me to another myth the NDP is spreading about so-called budget reductions to food safety. This is simply false. There have been no reductions made at the CFIA that would impact food safety in Canada. In fact, since March 2006 our government has added over 700 net new inspectors, an increase of over 20%. Inspectors will continue to inspect food products to ensure they meet the regulatory requirements of Canada.
To outline some of the investments we have made in food safety since forming government, in 2007, we provided $223 million over five years for the food safety and consumer action plan. In 2009, we provided $75 million over three years to address the report of the independent investigator. Budget 2010 provided $13 million over two years to hire more inspectors. Budget 2011 provided $100 million over five years for inspection modernization. In this year's budget, we are providing $52 million over two years for food safety, which the opposition unfortunately voted against.
When we add up all of these investments, we see that the funding for the CFIA has gone up some 20% since we formed government in 2006. Only the NDP can call a 20% increase a budget cut. Of course, it is the same party that puts a $20 billion carbon tax in its election platform and then adamantly denies that it wants to tax Canadians.
With all of this in mind, I want to take this opportunity to highlight our government's action in addressing the need for updated food safety legislation in Canada. This has become especially urgent in light of the large recall of beef products that is currently under way.
I want to take a few minutes to inform the House about some aspects of the new proposed food safety bill, the safe food for Canadians act.
First, let me stress that the objective of the bill is to enhance food safety oversight and to modernize.
This bill strengthens Canada's capacity to recall foods that pose a health risk and gives the CFIA the authority to have food producers adopt a traceability system.
A traceability system would allow the CFIA to more quickly trace products that pose a health risk and get them all off store shelves.
In addition, there are regulatory powers that would permit the CFIA to establish a record-keeping framework for food producers, which would force the producers to submit records by a given date.
As we can imagine, some producers keep more detailed records, while others do not. Some prefer to use paper systems, others computer programs. The upshot is that there are many record-keeping practices. If the CFIA could know in advance the format of the records and what standard information they should contain, investigations could be carried out much more quickly and more smoothly.
This bill would allow the government to make the industry submit records in a specific format in order to allow the CFIA to intervene more quickly in the event of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
This proposed legislation will provide a single and consistent inspection regime for Canada. Such a streamlined regime would make inspectors more efficient and effective. It would ease the burden on producers and industry. It would also allow businesses to better understand what the government expects from them, while providing Canadians with assurance that all foods are subject to the same safety standards, regardless of the commodity.
Food safety in Canada started with a sound regulatory framework. Food inspection was harmonized when the CFIA was created in 1997. Now is the time to harmonize the legislative framework under which it operates. Now is the time to enhance our legislative framework to provide an even more effective, responsive, streamlined, transparent and accountable food safety system to Canadians.
This bill would permit smarter, more efficient regulation. It would strengthen, modernize and consolidate current inspection and enforcement authorities around food. It is time for the opposition to step up to the plate.
New legislative provisions are also needed to position Canada to deal with new technologies and the realities of food production in the 21st century. The food safety environment is more complex today than it was just 10 years ago. The right tools are needed to properly manage today’s risks and to better protect Canadians from unsafe food.
Consumer lifestyles are changing and the world is changing due to advancing science and technology—technology that is changing food manufacturing processes.
International best practices, new scientific tools and advances in developing food safety systems have guided Canada’s move to strengthen its risk-based inspection system. This bill continues this and supports this direction.
Consumers are seeking updated food safety legislation, and we have long recognized the need for modernization.
Consumer groups, producers and industry representatives have gone down this path with government before. Several attempts have been made over the past decade to get this work done.
In the Speech from the Throne, our government committed to reintroducing legislation to protect Canadian families from unsafe food. Our government respects the wishes of Canadians with this proposed legislation.
Our government is also committed to ensuring families have the information they need to make informed choices and to hold those who produce, import and sell goods in Canada accountable for the safety of Canadians.
The proposed legislation is very thorough and balanced. It addresses the desire of Canadians for better, more consistent protection of the food supply. The consolidation of the various food commodity-based statutes will mean that all foods will be governed by one consistent, rigorous set of rules.
Here is what people are saying about the safe foods for Canadians bill.
Nancy Croitoru, president and CEO, 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”.
Albert Chambers, executive director, Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition, said that it will, “position Canada’s food safety regime well in the rapidly changing global regulatory environment”.
Consumers and food safety experts are saying this. What has the NDP members been saying, until they had an 11th hour conversion a couple of weeks ago? The member for Welland was on the record in the Western Producer newspaper opposing this legislation.
This is another knee-jerk reaction of the NDP to oppose everything, before doing their homework and actually reading the bill. It was that member who claimed the CFIA would allow roadkill into the Canadian food chain. He has no credibility when it comes to food safety.
Canada is not the only country that is modernizing its food laws. In the United States, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. This U.S. law sets out the requirements that American and foreign food facilities must meet, and the role that the Food and Drug Administration will play with regard to the frequency of inspections, tainted food assessments, and giving the U.S. government and local administrations more power.
The new U.S. law also gives additional powers to the FDA in order to prevent food-borne illnesses.
Canada already has a robust food safety system, but we have an unparalleled opportunity here to make it even better. This proposed modernized legislation provides for increased authority to prevent food-borne illnesses in our country.
The safe food for Canadians bill is needed so we can fulfill the recommendations of the report of the independent investigator in 2008 listeriosis outbreak. The independent investigator's report made it clear that legislative renewal was necessary for the government to fully meet its mandate and the expectations of Canadians. Our government committed to addressing all 57 of the independent investigator's recommendations. This is the last piece needed in order for us to follow on that commitment.
The Canadian industry has long been requesting a provision prohibiting a person from tampering with, threatening to tamper with or falsely claiming to tamper with products.
Our government also needs the authority to directly address those who perpetrate hoaxes on the public. Hoaxes generate unnecessary public fear around certain products and can be economically devastating for the producer of the product that is targeted by the hoax. With this bill, we would have the force to deal in a more immediate way with hoaxes and report them to the public.
Previous efforts in legislative renewal tried to cover statutes related to animal health and plant protection, as well as food. This bill is only about food. That is because food safety is one of our government's highest priorities.
With respect to the XL plant, this is why our government has been very clear. The plant will not reopen until the CFIA has deemed that it is safe. Consumer confidence is critical for Canada's beef industry. That is why we will not compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians' food.
In fact, because our government is so focused on getting our safe food for Canadians bill passed, this morning the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food requested consent to immediately send our bill to the committee. The opposition said “no” to this positive initiative. It is delaying the bill in the House, rather than sending it to committee.
As far as the inspectors are concerned, there is absolutely nothing to prove that there were not enough inspectors at the plant as a result of the budget cuts. That claim is absolutely false.
The CFIA has confirmed that the plant has 46 full-time staff, 40 inspection staff and 6 veterinarians. As I mentioned a few moments ago, far from reductions, the number of CFIA staff at the XL Foods plant has increased by six during the last several years. These inspectors provide systematic inspection and oversight and work to ensure full coverage at all times when the plant operates.
At the same time, we administer a highly effective recall system to protect and inform the public by tracing, identifying and working with retailers to remove product from the marketplace should problems occur. In fact, a recent University of Regina study of OECD countries found Canada's recall system to be among the best.
That is not to say there is nothing to learn from this event, and I am sure the CFIA, the meat-packing industry, and all our food safety partners will adopt any lessons they have learned.
Throughout the food safety investigation, the CFIA continued to maintain a very strong presence at this plant as it has with all other federally registered plants to verify that industry processes and practices are minimizing risks to food safety.
The CFIA is prepared to continue to work closely with XL Foods and complete its assessment of Establishment 38. The speed at which XL Foods can resume normal operations is solely dependent on its ability to demonstrate that it can produce safe food, as this government's top priority is the safety of the food supply. While the CFIA recognizes that the company would like to resume normal operations as soon as possible, its sole responsibility to consumers in this matter is to ensure that XL Foods can produce safe food.
I hope the Safe Food for Canadians Act will move swiftly through this House and come into effect as soon as possible in order to provide Canadians with an even more effective food safety system.
I support the proposed legislation because it will enhance food safety in Canada. It is time to modernize and for Canadians to have comprehensive protection from unsafe food under one legislation. I ask opposition members to support this important bill rather than playing partisan politics, like they are with the motion today.
I would like to ask for unanimous consent for the following motion: That notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practice of the House, Bill S-11, An Act respecting food commodities, including their inspection, their safety, their labelling and advertising, their import, export and interprovincial trade, the establishment of standards for them, the registration or licensing of persons who perform certain activities related to them, the establishment of standards governing establishments where those activities are performed and the registration of establishments where those activities are performed, be deemed read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Mr. Hoang Mai (Brossard—La Prairie, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques.
I rise today to speak to an issue of great concern to Canadians. It was even the subject of an emergency debate. This situation can be deemed a crisis. That is the right word for it. The XL Foods tainted meat scandal is having an enormous impact on the Canadian economy and especially on Canadians' confidence in the system.
It is the largest beef recall in Canada's history. A number of people have been infected by the E. coli bacteria and have fallen ill. Fortunately, there have been no deaths, but this is a very important health and safety issue for Canadians.
I have been an MP since May 2, 2011, and I can say that being a parliamentarian is not easy. We have many responsibilities. I can imagine that a minister also has many responsibilities. It is a very serious matter to call for a minister's resignation.
The NDP has given this much thought. My colleagues opposite say that it is simply a political move, but it is more than that. In this case, the minister is not doing his job and we are asking that he be replaced by someone who can do the job and inspire more confidence.
Two weeks ago, I raised a matter with the Minister of National Revenue. I asked her to apologize because the Canada Revenue Agency made a mistake. To my surprise, she apologized; she took responsibility.
In this case, the Minister of Agriculture is not taking responsibility. Even worse, he is not taking the matter seriously.
When we talked about having an emergency debate on this issue, the minister called it “silly”. Afterward, he had apologized, but it shows how the minister puts things lightly when we have a crisis. It is not helpful. We want Canadians to feel reassured but, when there is a crisis or a problem, we need to address it and talk about it. In this case, the minister did not do his job.
On October 2, when we knew there were some problems, the minister had been at a luncheon conference and said, “We had some great Canadian beef for lunch. I don’t know where it came from; I don’t care”. At the same time as the minister was saying that everything was fine, we were telling Canadians to look at where their beef was coming from because there had been a recall and they needed to be careful. Saying that everything is rosy does not help Canadians. They need to be given the right information.
On October 8, The Hill Times stated:
|| There is no excuse for him not to have been in the House last week for three days, dodging questions and remaining silent.
We saw that when we asked questions of the minister. The minister has a responsibility to be here to answer questions and, if there are a lot of questions, he needs to answer all of them.
People need to be reassured but the minister has failed to do that. This is but one of the things he failed on in terms of his responsibilities.
There was another incident in which the minister did not do his job properly. We have to remember the past. Why do we no longer have any confidence in the Minister of Agriculture? The reason is that this same minister held the same position in 2008, when 22 Canadians died as a result of the Maple Leaf food crisis. There was a problem at that time, and we must learn from our mistakes. Clearly, the minister did not learn his lesson.
This government is pushing for cuts. We also believe in an efficient government and Parliament, but cuts should not be made when they affect services and safety. The government is giving industry and businesses more and more power to regulate themselves. The companies themselves have to take the initiative and do the inspections. We all know that a company's main objective is to make a profit, and if measures affect that profit, the company will certainly try to do everything possible, evaluate the risks and then determine whether it should shut down or recall products.
It is up to the government to ensure that the products that are offered to Canadians are safe. We must not let businesses regulate themselves, as the government is currently doing. We should have learned from the 2008 listeriosis crisis. Twenty-two deaths is too many. Twenty-two people died, and the government did not learn its lesson. We find that rather shocking and we do not understand it. The same minister was in office then as now, and we are facing one of the biggest crises ever in terms of the recall of beef products. Clearly, we do not have any confidence in the minister because, rather than taking concrete action, he is engaging in hyperbole and saying that everything is fine. No concrete action has been taken. The government is really doing exactly the opposite of what it should be doing.
I know that the members opposite say that there have not been any cuts. Yet, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's May 8, 2012, report on plans and priorities, which was signed by this same minister, indicated that $46.6 million in cuts would be made and that 314 full-time employees would be laid off from 2012 to 2015. Clearly, cuts are being made.
I am a member of the Standing Committee on Finance. Last year, during pre-budget consultations, we asked witnesses about the potential impact of budget cuts on food inspections or food safety. The witnesses warned us in no uncertain terms during these pre-budget consultations that such cuts would jeopardize Canadians' safety, because if cuts were made to the agency mandated to protect the health of Canadians, not only would this lead to reduced services, but it would put safety at risk. And look what happened.
If the government had invested in hiring people to protect us instead of making these cuts, then the largest beef recall in history could have been avoided. What is more, 2,000 people have lost their jobs. There are closures. The impact this is having on trade and the economy far outweighs what it would have cost to keep the inspectors in place.
This motion calls for the minister to be replaced and for the budget cuts to be reversed in order to truly address this problem instead of pretending that everything is just fine and that we can eat whatever we want with no problem.
Mr. Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise in this House today to point out something that seems obvious to me and that seems obvious to most Canadians, but that the government appears not to know anything about.
The Conservative government and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food learned absolutely nothing from the listeriosis crisis in 2008. Many numbers have been thrown about here and there since the beginning of the debate and the beginning of the crisis. They say that 700 new inspectors have been hired, that $51 million has been made available in the budget and that six new inspectors were hired at the XL Foods plant, the site of the latest E. coli bacterial contamination.
A number of opposition members used their time to destroy and demolish these myths. This is what I too will be doing during my speech. It is worth taking the time to clarify the situation, because unlike the opposition, the government seems obsessed with confusing the issue.
The budget cuts in the 2012 budget were the main reason why we voted against the budget. In fact, we should remember that the NDP voted against the 2012 budget because it contained budget cuts amounting to $56 million and the elimination of important positions in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Back in April, journalists reported that 825 people had received a notice saying that their position at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was in danger. Not all the people affected were inspectors; some of them worked in administrative positions. However, some inspectors did receive notices. As of April 13, we knew that 59 inspectors assigned to meat inspection had already been laid off and it was possible that another 30 or 40 inspectors would also be laid off in the months to come. So some meat inspection positions had in fact already been eliminated.
The government says that 700 inspector positions have been created. The Conservatives repeated this number again today, a month after the beginning of the debate on the issue. This is unbelievable. It is clear and it has been noted that none of these positions were created in the slaughter plants. Two hundred of these inspectors were assigned to the review of invasive species, about 300 were assigned to technological controls, which has nothing to do with on-site inspections, and 170 were assigned to meat inspection in processing plants, not slaughter plants. Remember that XL Foods was a slaughter plant. So saying that 700 positions were created is nothing but hogwash.
This is now a matter of government accountability. This is a matter of transparency and accountability, and the government and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food are refusing to live up to their responsibilities.
When the layoffs were announced and when it became known that some employees had received a notice of that kind, journalists started asking questions, including Sarah Schmidt of Postmedia News, Jason Fekete and other journalists. They wanted to know where the notices had been sent and which positions were going to be eliminated or were likely to be eliminated. They wanted to know whether the people involved were veterinarians, seed inspectors or inspectors working in slaughterhouses and processing plants. Despite repeated requests, including requests to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and to the minister’s office, they never got any answers. They did not obtain any answers to their questions.
In terms of the $51 million the Conservatives boast about investing, what they are not saying is that this money was meant to renew the programs that were started after that listeriosis crisis, in the processing plants. Another thing they are not saying is that the money was divided among three budgets. One part went to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, another part went to the Public Health Agency of Canada and the last part went to Health Canada. It was meant to ensure that the programs set up in the wake of the listeriosis crisis would not be eliminated. These are not new programs that have been created, but rather existing programs that have been maintained.
However, the Conservatives went ahead with cuts in the order of $56 million in the 2012 budget. It was clear; it was set out in black and white: $56 million was cut from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency budget. That led to the lay-offs of 59 meat inspectors on plant floors.
Now we should talk about ministerial accountability, because this is the reason why we are here today. We are here to discuss the accountability of the minister. The NDP is calling on the Minister of Agriculture to resign, because he has not done his job.
Since the beginning of the crisis, 15 people have fallen ill and to date there have been 16 recalls of contaminated meat. In the chronology put out by the Conservatives and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, on September 13, 2012, U.S. authorities took away XL Foods’ export permit because they had detected E. coli bacteria. Nonetheless, meat continued to be produced at the plant and, despite what the minister told us, wound up on grocery store shelves and in Canadians' refrigerators for another two weeks, until September 27.
The minister has said he was not to blame right from the start. Back in the early days of the crisis, he blamed just about everyone else. He began by blaming the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and then he blamed the opposition, the media and just about anyone but himself. The Prime Minister did the same: he said that his Minister of Agriculture had done nothing wrong.
What is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, if not a crown corporation, an independent agency of the government that reports to Parliament and to the members? It is an agency that reports directly to the Minister of Agriculture. According to the principle of ministerial accountability, the Minister of Agriculture must take the blame for what happened. He must take the blame because, despite what he says, he has the authority to instruct this agency to take direct measures, because the agency reports to him. In everything that the Conservative government has said to date during this debate, that is the key element that it is trying to make us forget.
There are some crucial facts. We want Canadians to have confidence in the current food inspection system. That is our sincerest wish. It is hard to have complete confidence in this system when the government talks about 700 net new inspectors, but that number does not apply to the XL Foods plant, and when it talks about injecting new money that is being used only to maintain existing programs that would otherwise have been dropped.
It is hard to have confidence in the government when it fails to mention important facts related to XL Foods in particular. Indeed, there are 46 inspectors at the plant, and the government told us it hired six new inspectors, but it failed to tell us that those inspectors were hired to fill vacancies. No new positions were created. People were hired to fill positions that had been left vacant for a long time by the Conservative government. The government is trying to cover its backside by shifting the blame and playing the public relations game.
I want to quickly come back to XL Foods and the 46 inspectors. There are two important facts that we must not overlook that are part of the current problem, which must be addressed by the minister. The first is that the 46 inspectors are not on the floor at all times. There are two shifts of 23 people. The XL Foods plant increased its production significantly. The Conservative government even gave the plant funding so that it could speed up its production. It now processes between 4,000 and 5,000 head of cattle, but there are still only 46 inspectors, or two shifts of 23 inspectors. In that context, one inspector can evaluate roughly four head of cattle a minute.
It is clear to us, but I would like to know whether it is clear to the government that speeding up production without increasing the inspection capacity is a recipe for an E. coli outbreak and could result in future outbreaks and tainted meat problems.
The government must answer this question. The minister is refusing to do so and that is why we are calling for his resignation.
Mr. LaVar Payne (Medicine Hat, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I want to start by saying that consumer confidence is critical to Canada's beef industry, and that is why we will not compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians' food.
As the member of Parliament for Medicine Hat and more specifically as the MP for the people of Brooks, Alberta, I think it is rather shameful that, at this hard time for my constituents, the NDP is playing politics with this issue. As the MP for Brooks, I say that the opposition has been spreading a lot of myths and innuendo today. If members want the facts about what happened, they should simply go to the CFIA website, www.inspection.gc.ca, and read for themselves. However, perhaps in the interim I will enlighten them on the facts.
Our food safety system is the best in the world, as stated by the OECD. 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. We also know that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's first priority is to maintain the safety of the food supply and that the agency acts on science-based evidence to protect public health. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on September 4, and it has been acting ever since. By the way, I am going to refer to E. coli strain 0157:H7 simply as E. coli.
In order to understand what happened at the XL plant, CFIA launched an in-depth investigation, which ultimately uncovered deficiencies in the establishment. In its in-depth review of plant operations, it pointed to a combination of several deficiencies that caused the problem. Regulated establishments are expected to be able to monitor higher than normal detection rates and modify their control programs accordingly. However, at this facility, this did not happen. The CFIA found that the company had an approved plan to deal with E. coli, but the plan was not followed and was not being updated. The company was unable to demonstrate that it was consistently and effectively implementing its agreed control program.
The CFIA also noted deviations from the company's documented control systems for E. coli and its sampling and testing procedures. This was serious and likely to contribute to E. coli contamination going undetected. The CFIA also identified a number of other general maintenance and sanitation issues that may have been found in a high-volume plant, particularly in an older plant. These would not typically contribute to E. coli contamination but had to be fixed. The company made a series of commitments to correct the deficiencies identified by the CFIA. However, based on information from the company and from CFIA staff in the plant, the agency determined these deficiencies had not been fully corrected.
As a result, the CFIA suspended XL Foods' licence to operate the Brooks plant on September 27. Prior to this, on September 16, XL Foods had already begun recalling affected products and the agency alerted the public. The CFIA administers a highly effective recall system to protect and inform the public by tracing, identifying and working with retailers to remove product from the marketplace should problems occur. The CFIA continues to work with XL Foods to collect information from suppliers, distributors and retailers to identify where affected products have been distributed.
As a result, additional products have been and may still be recalled, in which case CFIA will immediately alert the public. These recall expansions are common because some of the affected products went for further processing or to other distributors before going to retailers. This means affected products could be repackaged and relabelled after leaving the XL facility. When dealing with public alerts, the CFIA needs to be sure it has identified all the right products. CFIA inspectors contacted and visited retailers across Canada to make sure all identified products are removed from stores.
This can be a time-consuming process. As the recall proceeded, CFIA also conducted a rigorous review of the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta. The agency sent an expert review team of specialists to conduct a thorough review of the plant and the company's progress toward fixing problems.
The review conducted on October 9 and 10 determined that the plant and equipment had been cleaned and sanitized to meet requirements of Canada's meat inspection regulations. The team also verified that the specific maintenance and sanitation problems identified by CFIA had been corrected. In addition, the CFIA evaluated the company's written corrective action plan for enhanced E. coli control.
On October 11, the agency announced that it would allow the facility to proceed to the next stage in the review process. This means, effective October 11, the plant was allowed to process, not ship, carcasses that were in the plant when it closed on September 27.
The CFIA sampling and testing of the carcasses in the facility found that more than 99% tested negative for E. coli. The remainder will be destroyed and will not enter the food supply. Carcasses that tested negative for E. coli are being allowed to proceed to processing, so the CFIA can observe the plant's food safety controls in action. No products will leave the plant until the CFIA has confirmed, in writing, to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food that plant controls are effectively and consistently managing E. coli risks and all the products are safe.
Let me say that even though the process has been hard on Brooks, the people of that great city know that if CFIA does not take every step possible to assure consumers that meat coming from XL in the future is safe, then the future of the plant is in even more doubt.
CFIA plans to do even more. As I have outlined, the CFIA's current focus is to verify that the plant has put measures in place, and follows these measures, to effectively control possible E. coli contamination at all stages of production.
Once the agency is confident in the food safety controls at XL Foods, the CFIA will review this incident to determine if improvements to Canada's food safety system can be made. The CFIA's first priority continues to be the health and safety of Canadians. The CFIA's decisions have been and continue to be based on science, evidence and a precautionary approach to protect consumers.
Industry has a major responsibility when it comes to safe food. It is required by law to produce it. Many food-producing companies have instituted state-of-the-art food systems in their operations, as well they should. They need to leverage new technologies and new techniques to meet their requirements to government regulators, such as CFIA, and the people of Canada to produce safe food.
That precautionary approach simply means the agency will err on the side of caution if there is a risk that some action or policy is harmful to consumers.
From the beginning, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's actions throughout the XL Foods investigation and recall have been guided by science and by the evidence. Nevertheless, there has been some criticism of how this event has been handled.
At first the focus was on how the agency responded. Now we see the complexity of the problem that had to be assessed and acted on. The question remains as to why problems at the plant were not found during routine inspections.
I know the president of XL Foods' union has said that in fact there were many problems at the plant, and he certainly suggested that these were safety issues, and yet neither the union nor any of its employees actually went to a CFIA inspector to see if these corrections needed to be made. There is absolutely no record of a union member going to CFIA to question the food safety.
Routine day-to-day inspections focus on what are called critical control points, where food risks are greatest. Less critical aspects of production and facility maintenance are assessed, but less frequently. It makes sense to focus resources where they are most effective, where there is the most risk.
Normally, many of the issues identified by the in-depth review have been dealt with directly with plant management. Since they were picked up during an in-depth review, the agency was required to issue corrective action requests immediately.
Remember that the investigation determined that a combination of several deficiencies could have contributed to the problem. There was not one major issue but a few smaller ones. By themselves, each of these deficiencies would not typically be cause for immediate concern during routine inspection procedures.
New procedures at the plant will continue to provide the CFIA with more frequent trend analyses and more stringent bracketing procedures. These involve removing products from the assembly line if they are near any lot that contains a sample of meat that tested positive for E. coli.
The CFIA's current focus is to verify the plant has put the measures in place and to follow those measures to effectively control possible E. coli contamination at all stages of production. Once the CFIA is fully confident in the food safety controls at Establishment 38 of XL Foods Inc., it will review this incident to determine if improvements to Canada's food safety system can be made.
As I have said, the process has been hard on the people in Brooks and the plant workers have been temporarily laid off, pending resumption of normal activities. I have had discussions with the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development on this very issue. That is why Service Canada has proactively contacted the company and assigned a reference number to track claims.
Furthermore, Service Canada staff is in town to assist employees in filing their claims and information sessions are being arranged to help those affected, along with my staff from the Brooks office. I encourage all employees to submit EI claims. I know over 800 applicants have already begun the process.
I will speak to the claims made that the government has somehow undermined food safety by underfunding the CFIA.
When we look at the government's actions on food safety, we do not see underfunding.
In response to the 2009 Weatherill recommendations, the government initiated a review of Canada's food inspection system and made an initial investment of $75 million over three years to improve the system's ability to prevent, detect and respond to food-borne illness. That was a direct infusion coming between annual budgets.
Six months later, budget 2010 provided the CFIA with an additional $13 million for two years to increase its capacity to inspect meat processing facilities.
Budget 2011 provided an additional $100 million over five years for the CFIA to modernize its food inspection system. This enabled the government to complete its response to all the recommendations in the Weatherill report through target investments in inspector training, additional science capacity and electronic tools to support the work of front line inspectors.
Budget 2012 underscored the government's continued commitment to keeping our food safe. It included another $51.2 million over the next two years for the CFIA, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada to continue to improve food safety.
Since 2006, the CFIA has received funding to hire more than 700 net new inspectors, including 170 meat inspectors. It is food safety and public health investments like these that have driven down the incidents of E. coli illness in Canada by 50% over the last six years.
The government is also pursuing complementary activities to strengthen Canada's food safety system, including proposed new legislation. The safe food for Canada act would strengthen food safety legislation and regulations to support the CFIA's core mandate of food safety and consumer protection.
It is unfortunate that some of the proposed changes to Canada's food safety system have already drawn some fire through a misguided association with the XL Foods recall.
There have also been claims that the CFIA is reducing front line food safety inspection staff. That is simply not true. No staffing reductions have been made by the CFIA that will affect food safety in Canada. In fact, from March 2006 to March 2012, our government has increased inspectors by a net number of over 700, or a 20% increase. This staff increase demonstrates the agency's commitment to continue to direct available resources to specific priority areas, such as food safety and front line inspection.
As for the XL Foods plant at the heart of the recall, the CFIA has 46 full-time staff at the Brooks, Alberta plant comprised of 40 inspectors and 6 veterinarians. These inspectors are working in two shifts to ensure full coverage at all times when the plant is operating, providing systematic inspection and oversight. There have been no changes to CFIA staffing levels in the plant in the last 12 months.
The CFIA will continue to maintain a strong presence at the XL Foods plants and all other federally-registered plants to verify that the industry processes and practices are minimizing risks to food safety.
Our government is fully committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians by ensuring that Canada's food safety system remains among the best in the world.
It is true that ranchers and farmers in my riding and the industry need a strong processing sector, but everyone understands that food safety is the cornerstone of the industry's growth success, That is why the XL Foods plant will resume full operation only when the president of the CFIA confirms to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food that the health of Canadians is not at risk.
I ask that the NDP agriculture critic, the member for Welland, who I sit with on the agriculture committee, to end his political games and, for once, do something constructive and support our government's investments in food safety and support our legislation, the safe food for Canadians act.
I strongly urge all those concerned about improving the food safety in Canada to support the safe food for Canadians acts when it comes to the House. The bill would strengthen food safety legislation and regulations to support CFIA's core mandate of food safety and consumer protection.
I would ask for unanimous consent for the following motion: That notwithstanding any order or unusual practice of the House, Bill S-11, an act respecting food commodities, including their inspection, their safety, their labelling and advertising, their import, export and interprovincial trade, the establishment of standards for them, the registration or licensing of persons who perform certain activities related to them, the establishment of standards governing establishments where those activities are performed and the registration of establishments where those activities are performed, be deemed read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Ms. Anne Minh-Thu Quach (Beauharnois—Salaberry, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to note that I will be sharing my speaking time with the member for Compton—Stanstead.
The situation we are in today is far from brilliant. Yesterday, we learned that the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. equivalent of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, had warned Canada several times about shortcomings in its food safety system.
Between 2003 and 2008, not just one report, but a whole series of reports were sent to the Canadian government concerning problems in several slaughterhouses, including the XL Foods plant, and the Brooks plant in Alberta was temporarily removed from the list of authorized meat exporters by the U.S. authorities. The reports mentioned equipment with meat left on it for hours, as well as traces of blood and fat from the previous day. The reports also mentioned a shortage of qualified staff and inadequate inspection of the carcasses. This is rather alarming, is it not?
The problems at XL Foods are nothing new. Despite repeated warnings from the American inspectors and Canadian experts, the Canadian government took no action. This is completely irresponsible. There is nothing really surprising about the fact that we find ourselves today facing a new crisis that has lasted more than 40 days.
Do we really need to be reminded that this is the largest beef recall in our country’s history? It is reported that 1,800 products have been recalled, in all the Canadian provinces, 40 U.S. states and 20 other countries. Canada's reputation has been tarnished, and this government, including the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, continues to claim that it did what had to be done. This is very arrogant and demonstrates incredible incompetence. It is truly a fiasco.
Is this government, which is so fond of deregulation that it prefers to protect the interests of multinationals rather than the health of Canadians, aware of the economic consequences of its inaction, at a time when it is boasting about its economic progress?
I will give some examples of these fiascos. Albertan businesses and the food sector have now lost billions of dollars because of this crisis. Our beef exports have significantly declined. The company has had to pay out more than $3 million in compensation to its employees. Despite this, many workers are currently jobless.
Martin Shields, the mayor of Brooks, is worried. The small town of 13,000 is suffering because of this crisis. The municipality is trying to help all the workers complete employment insurance forms and to assist them in their search for a temporary job or direct them to food banks. For a government that boasts of being the champion of the economy, this is a total disaster.
From now on, XL Foods will be operated by JBS, and it may even be purchased by this Brazilian multinational. JBS is the largest beef processing company in the world, with sales of $30 billion per year. The Brooks plant will continue to slaughter more than 4,000 animals per day. Let us hope that the government will now and henceforth ensure that health criteria are met and even exceeded. But that would surprise us given that it has not yet learned anything from the last crisis, the one involving listeriosis.
Rather than strengthening our oversight system, the Conservative government deregulated it. It prefers to allow the industry to self-regulate. But who will monitor our food safety? We need to keep in mind that E. coli contamination can kill.
In 2008, 22 people died in the listeriosis crisis. Do we want that kind of tragedy to happen again? What lesson did this government learn from the last tragedy? None, apparently. We have teetered on the brink of disaster once again: 15 people became seriously ill. For anyone who is not aware, the effects of E. coli contamination last from five to seven days. A person may have a fever and suffer prolonged vomiting and also have cramps and diarrhea. It is not a pleasant thing. Fortunately, those people did not die. It could have happened. What is the government waiting for before it does something?
The motion by my colleague from Welland is very clear. It is calling for three things that are essential for reforming the food inspection system and protecting our health.
First, the present minister, who has not lived up to his responsibilities, has to be removed, and the essential job of protecting the Canadian public has to be assigned to a competent minister. Second, the budget cuts that have brought us to this untenable situation have to be cancelled. And third, the Auditor General has to be directed to evaluate food inspection procedures.
On September 3, E. coli bacteria were found in a shipment of ground beef from XL Foods. But it was not until September 16 that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ordered the first recall. A few days earlier, on September 12, meat exports to the United States had been halted. The meat was judged to be unfit for consumption for Americans, but not for Canadians. Something is not working. What did the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food do? He chose the strategy of deny, deny, deny.
On September 26, the minister said there was no contaminated meat on store shelves, at the same time as there were Canadians getting sick. Either the minister was not aware of what was going on, which would be bizarre since he is supposed to be responsible for the agency, or he was continuing to underestimate the crisis. In both cases, there was a flagrant absence of ministerial accountability. He no longer has the confidence of Canadians and he must be replaced.
Now let us talk about our food inspection system. The experts have been calling for reform for some years now. In 2009, after the listeriosis crisis that resulted in 22 deaths, Sheila Weatherill, a leading expert in this area, was directed by the Prime Minister to investigate the crisis.
In her report, she recommended that the compliance verification system be reviewed since there were significant flaws in it. She also recommended that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency take proactive measures to ensure food safety. All of these elements are essential to the modernization of our monitoring system.
Some important parts of Ms. Weatherill’s report have not been implemented. As well, the agency has suffered cuts of $46 million, the equivalent of losing 308 positions, including a number of inspector positions. Today, in fact, we have heard the Conservatives refer repeatedly to the many inspectors they have added, but we must not allow ourselves to be fooled by this disinformation, since 170 inspectors were added in the wake of the listeriosis crisis, and 200 inspectors out of the 700 announced with great fanfare are associated simply with processing, and not with inspection.
When we look at all this information, we realize that the crisis was not an accident at all, but rather the result of the Conservative government's negligence. It was also a result of the ideology of the Conservatives, who do not believe that the government should play a role in protecting people and public health.
During the 2008 listeriosis crisis, we realized that Maple Leaf did not have any obligation to report the discovery of contaminated meat to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The industry is being asked to regulate itself. Is this a joke? Is the minister giving the industry the responsibility to protect the public health of Canadians? Really?
This deplorable policy makes me think of the generic drug shortage that occurred only a few months ago. In that case too, the federal government said that it had not been informed by the company and that there had been a break in the production line. It is because the industry was not being closely monitored. The government is relying on self-regulation. It sees that there are problems but does not react. This is a serious problem. Once again, Canadians are the ones who are paying the price. Let us remember that surgeries had to be postponed and patients had to take alternative drugs.
This crisis shows that there are major flaws in our food surveillance system. What guarantee do we have that the meat we buy at the grocery store is safe? Too many doubts remain. We are asking the Auditor General to assess the compliance verification system.
Bill S-11 does not address all the issues. It also does not fix the flaws in the current system. This bill includes a mandatory audit of the CFIA every five years. We cannot wait five years. That is too long. Canadians' health is at stake here. I do not know whether the Conservatives understand that.
Many people are aware of the amount of meat that plants process, so I will move on.
The government must play a role in the public health of Canadians. The Conservatives need to understand that. They need to demonstrate leadership, be accountable to Canadians and make the right decisions.
Mr. Jean Rousseau (Compton—Stanstead, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, since this morning, the members opposite, including the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, have been demanding that we debate Bill S-11, from the Senate, which is an unelected chamber. This is sad. Once again, the Conservatives are trying to discredit our work. The House of Commons is made up of elected members. We were elected by the Canadian people from coast to coast to coast, and the government is preventing us from doing our job.
Today's topic has to do with an industry hit particularly hard by a number of problems in the past decade. From the mad cow crisis to listeriosis and the current E. coli concerns, the agriculture industry has been harshly singled out, especially in how it is treated by the current government.
This sector is very important to our economy. In fact, one out of eight jobs in Canada is in the agriculture and food processing industry. We have to give the industry the attention it deserves because it is such an important part of our daily lives.
When I think of all of the farmers in my riding who are trying to make a living, I feel compelled to stand up for these Canadians across the country by supporting the action plan proposed in the motion we are debating today.
Years ago, we never would have thought that our cupboards would be filled with foods from around the world. I am not talking about unusual and exotic meats and fruits. The range of foods available on supermarket shelves has changed dramatically.
Farmers face challenges every day, and they are now facing a serious crisis of confidence in their products, which could jeopardize the survival of many family farms weakened by the Conservatives' inaction for far too long now.
I would like to start my speech by reading the last part of this excellent motion:
||(c) directing the Auditor General to conduct an immediate assessment of food safety procedures and resources and report his findings to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
And to think I believed that our system was one of the best in the world. At the beginning of this crisis, I was convinced that the contaminated beef was American. I thought the government was taking its usual approach, which means taking a long time to react to an order from the American authorities. I must have been really naive to think that the Conservatives were really governing the country.
After visiting slaughter facilities, food processing and manufacturing plants, and training facilities for young farmers in my riding and in many regions of Quebec, I found that all stakeholders on the ground agreed that our standards are among the highest and that our system is one of the most effective in the industrial world.
So what happened on the front lines? Where were the CFIA inspectors? Why did the chain of command between the CFIA and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food break down? This minister is responsible for this. Why was nothing done to ensure the safety of Canadians and to maintain confidence in an industry that was already suffering from the folly of this government's ideology?
An investigation is absolutely necessary in order to finally shed some light on the current crisis facing this very crucial industry. An investigation is crucial in order to restore consumer confidence.
Today the House is calling on the government to adopt this motion in order to restore Canadians' confidence in our food safety system.
Here is how this can be achieved, as indicated in the second part of the motion:
||(b) reversing budget cuts [of over $100 million] and halting the de-regulation of Canada’s food safety system;
How can Canadians trust a system when the government claims to be investing in that area, but is actually gradually withdrawing from it? Self-regulation does not always work, especially when it comes to a beef processing plant of that size.
A number of stakeholders in the agriculture sector had warned us that sooner or later someone would make mistakes at this company. What did the cuts affect? Training of front-line officers, the number of officers working in real time, the modernization of regulations and their harmonization with those of our neighbours south of the border.
Instead of paying attention to the people who devote themselves to these activities that are so important to our country and thus restoring consumers' confidence by providing them with access to local products, the government is investing in advertising and photo ops. There is no accountability and no sense of ministerial responsibility.
While the minister spends more time with certain male colleagues in tanning salons, an industry is being hard hit by the lack of action or involvement in an area that demands credibility, collaboration, co-operation and, above all, communication. By firing the current minister and handing over the food safety portfolio to a minister capable of restoring public trust, we will ensure that new impetus is given to investigating this situation.
I realize that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture would love to be the next agriculture minister, but does he have the right stuff? Listening to him, we can be sure of one thing: like a number of other Conservative cabinet members, he is either living in a parallel universe or he is just following orders that come directly from the Prime Minister's Office. Come to think of it, we should perhaps also include the ministers of industry and transport. We can talk about this another time; it is an entirely different matter.
In closing, I wish to pledge my complete and utter support for the fantastic motion we are currently debating in the House, and I assure my colleagues on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food of my unwavering support for their demands. What is happening is truly unfortunate, but the Conservatives have pushed for more self-regulation, and inspectors are now inspecting paperwork instead of meat.
Today's motion is the direct result of the Conservatives' incompetence, and Canadians are paying the price, especially our hard-working western farmers who do their work with integrity and often devote their lives to it. Thank you and bon appétit.