Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to again speak to Bill S-11, the modernization of Canada's food safety system. This is, undoubtedly, a timely issue, especially given that we are hardly two months removed from the beginning of the largest beef recall in Canadian history caused by a collapse in monitoring and sanitation measures at XL Foods in Brooks, Alberta.
I also note that there has been no delay in addressing the bill. I last rose and spoke to Bill S-11 on October 22, not even a month ago. In fact, and I will address this through my remarks, I believe we may have proceeded a little too quickly, by only a few days perhaps, for how serious a matter this is.
We know there is widespread support for modernizing our food safety system. When the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was first created in 1997, it was understood that the agency was only the first step in a multi-step process that also involved consolidating its legislative framework. The first attempt to do this was by a Liberal government in 2004 through Bill C-27 and it has been tried a couple of times since.
Witnesses who appeared before the committee generally spoke well of the need to proceed with this legislation but were also sure to voice their concerns, concerns that we share and that are important to be heard because of how serious an issue food safety remains. When it is time to vote, we will support Bill S-11. However, it is important that our concerns and the concerns of stakeholders across the country get raised and discussed.
We all know the context that makes this legislation more potent: the remarkable failure at XL Foods in Brooks, Alberta, where beef left the facility destined for the United States contaminated with E.coli 0157, a harmful pathogen that can cause serious illness when consumed by humans, especially those most vulnerable, like young children and seniors. The facts are pretty clear. Whether the Americans caught it first and let us know or the CFIA discovered it independently on September 4, Canadian officials would have known that day that there was an outbreak of E.coli at Establishment 38. Right then and there, bracketing should have caught any further contaminated meat. It did not.
During testimony by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, he stated:
The initial find, the problem, was that they had a discovery but then had not bracketed properly. That's taking production on either side of the affected batch out of the food cycle as well. They had not done that, and until CFIA was back in there doing the trend analysis, that was not discovered.
The government can argue that none of these shipments that the Americans stopped and that XL Foods tested on September 4 got out, but that E.coli contaminated meat from XL Foods made it to store shelves means it is playing word games and that tainted meat from that batch or not made it to consumers and made 18 Canadians ill. Semantics does not take the meat off the shelves. It was a recall issued on September 16, about two weeks later, that did.
The minister makes it clear in his statement that meat got out because XL Foods was not bracketing, nor was it monitoring E.coli trends. Why not? More still, we ask day after day what the delay was to no avail, until eventually we heard that only under Bill S-11 would inspectors finally have the power to compel conveyors and processors to supply the necessary documentation requested by inspectors. That is curious.
I will remind members that subsection 13(2) of the Meat Inspection Act states quite clearly:
The owner or person in charge of a place or vehicle referred to in subsection (1) and every person found in that place or vehicle shall give the inspector all reasonable assistance to enable the inspector to carry out his duties and functions under this Act and shall furnish the inspector with any information the inspector may reasonably require with respect to the administration or enforcement of this Act and the regulations.
That is the law now.
It also states in paragraph 13(1)(c) that inspectors may:
...require any person to produce for inspection, or for the purpose of obtaining copies or extracts, any book, shipping bill, bill of lading or other document or record that the inspector believes on reasonable grounds contains any information relevant to the administration or enforcement of this Act or the regulations.
That is the law now without Bill S-11.
Moreover, as recently as this past February, the CFIA made its regulations concerning inspectors' powers clear through the processor's guide to inspection, reinforcing the legal requirement to provide information to and assist an inspector when requested.
When I shared this concern with the CFIA president, George Da Pont, he assured me that while the Meat Inspection Act presently does provide these powers for inspectors, the new bill adds phrases like “timely” to the act, which will create an authority to provide documents in a certain timeframe.
Both acts have consequences for non-compliance and the addition of “timely” would not have changed what happened. In fact, much of our concern with Bill S-11 comes from what is not written and what will be incorporated by reference later on. We may very well see the appropriate timelines put in place but there is no way to know that now.
We are supporting this legislation because the language surrounding inspector powers will slightly strengthen and be made more clear but it remains abundantly clear that this bill is not a magic bullet that would have prevented 18 Canadians from falling ill last month.
What we all really require to augment our food safety system is the knowledge that the CFIA is adequately supported with sufficient staff and resources. I am not the sole voice on this issue.The only objective way to achieve this is through an independent comprehensive resource audit, such as the one requested by the independent investigator into 2008's listeriosis outcome, Sheila Weatherill. In her report the following year, which addressed measures necessary to help prevent another outbreak like the one in 2008 that killed 23 people and made many others sick, Ms. Weatherill was concerned with some of the information she received and stated the following:
Due to the lack of detailed information and differing views heard, the Investigation was not able to determine the current level of resources as well as the resources needed to conduct the CVS activities effectively. For the same reason, we were also unable to come to a conclusion concerning the adequacy of the program design, implementation plan, training and supervision of inspectors, as well as oversight and performance monitoring.
A full account of resources is absolutely necessary to not only ensure the adequacy of staffing but the effectiveness of training and allocation. I think members opposite are really concerned that we want to employ hundreds more inspectors. While we were justifiably concerned with their cuts to inspectors and the CFIA in the budget, some $56.1 million in cuts, which ostensibly have an impact on front-line resources, we thought they would like to know, that they need to know, if there are real efficiencies that could be attained once we know if everyone is adequately trained and where there can be redistribution. It is the smart way to run a business.
Given her concerns, Ms. Weatherill went on to recommend:
To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should retain third-party experts to conduct a resources audit. The experts should also recommend required changes and implementation strategies. The audit should include analysis as to how many plants an inspector should be responsible for and the appropriateness of rotation of inspectors.
That is pretty clear. We know that the CFIA did not do this because, in 2010, then CFIA president, Carole Swan, indicated that while it retained PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a review, she was very clear when she stated:
They didn't conduct it as an audit. An audit is a very specific process. It was a detailed review .
This means that not all the Weatherill recommendations were complied with. This means that even before the government's cuts in this year's budget, neither the agency nor the government had any clear impression of its resources and how best to allocate them. While cutting blindly may not have led to the E.coli contamination in Brooks, it certainly will not help the already compounded problem of inspectors in facilities who still do not have the necessary training in the compliance verification system, nor will it facilitate the transition of individual meat, fish and other agricultural product inspectors into a consolidated Jack of all trades and masters of none.
This very issue was highlighted during the Senate hearings on Bill S-11 when Bob Kingston, the president of the Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told members of that committee:
You will be interested to know that in the XL plant, only a small portion of the inspectors are actually trained in CVS. That is right; for more than four years after CVS was introduced, most inspectors there have not been trained in how to use it. Why, you might ask? The answer is actually simple. The CFIA cannot afford to deliver training any faster and does not have enough inspectors to relieve those away while being trained. As well, resources are often diverted to address crises, which further derails training.
To me, this is a clear statement that the CFIA lacks the resources and support to carry out its mandate.
According to the CFIA's website, the compliance verification system reads:
The CVS is a task-based inspection tool that:
is based on the CFIA’s regulatory requirements,
provides clear and consistent direction to CFIA inspectors,
is capable of adapting to rapidly-changing program requirements, and
can be applied to any inspection activity, in any commodity’s inspection program.
This is particularly important to me because it is not only verification of industry compliance but of consistency in inspection. In fact, a specific example on the CFIA website, and I can provide the website address to my colleagues opposite if they would like to check it out for themselves, reads:
For example: inspectors must regularly check a plant’s sanitation records, employee hygiene, cooking temperatures, ingredient controls, and lab results for pathogens like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli.
Instead of the authority to request documents within a certain time, which they had, what it sounds like the inspectors really needed to prevent the outbreak at XL was adequate training on CVS and enough staff to cycle them off while training. This revelation strikes right at the heart of the often repeated myth that the Conservative government has hired more inspectors than ever. It can have record numbers of inspectors and even if we believed more inspectors were hired, which no one does anymore, how can they perform their functions fully without adequate training?
It is another clear indication that while the government is willing to build a car, it will not pay to hire a proper driver or, in this case, train one. Instead, it is adding an additional burden to inspectors who are responsible for keeping us safe.
Mr. Kingston continued in his testimony to say:
This situation is not limited to XL. As a matter of fact, ...we found the exact same scenario throughout Quebec.
This is yet another example of industry self-policing gone wrong because the CFIA is not adequately resourced to verify compliance. Does the government even know how many of its inspectors are adequately trained?
Since the beginning of October, when the hon. member for Toronto Centre and our leader, wrote to the Auditor General to commence an immediate audit and our now retired colleague from the other place, Senator Robert Peterson, moved an amendment for an audit function to be placed in the bill, we have argued the absolute necessity of this comprehensive study into the CFIA. Despite all of this, when I proposed an amendment to commence an immediate and comprehensive resource audit at committee, the Conservative members voted it down. All this, despite the fact that there was not one witness who thought it was a bad idea.
They love quotes on the other side. Karen Proud of the Retail Council of Canada said:
I can't see that our members would object to such an audit. It's always a good thing to look internally at whether you have the right resources to match your requirements and your mandates and, especially given a new piece of legislation, whether you've matched up the right resources.
Similarly, during a meeting of the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry, Mr. Albert Chambers, the executive director of the Canadian Supply Chain Food Safety Coalition argued:
It has become very common in the food industry to use an accredited certification body to provide a third-party audit to a food safety management system.
In fact, at the June 21 meeting of the same committee, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food replied in response to a question about a third party audit that he would entertain the idea. In the weeks that followed the E. coli outbreak, he strangely became more and more resistant to the idea.
Sadly, Conservatives on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food voted against every single amendment put forward by opposition members. As a matter of fact, there were not many. We used our opportunities judiciously, hoping to work collaboratively to make good legislation better.
Despite asking us to work with them on a bill that everyone agrees is a good start, the Conservative members refused to follow their own express wishes. In a spirit of mindless partisanship, they even blocked an amendment of mine that would have seen the clock start ticking for the five-year limited review, which is there now and the act does provide for, immediately upon royal assent instead of waiting an unknown number of months until the rest of the act came into effect.
There was not an inch given to improve the bill. Despite our co-operation, Conservative committee members were determined to vote against us at every turn. Towards the end of the study, I requested two additional days for us to speak to departmental officials and get their answers to questions and concerns posed by other witnesses and for us to shape strong, wholesome amendments to further improve a bill that we all support. It was so important to our food security that we needed the opportunity to get it right and to address all of our concerns the first time around. Alas, that never happened.
However, we remain optimistic that on some day, this arrogant, dismissive way of the government will give way to better, more responsive legislation.