Mr. Speaker, they say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Never did I think that the government would fail to learn from the frightening lessons from the listeriosis crisis in 2008 that killed 23 people and made hundreds others ill, or from the Walkerton tragedy, which a number of members of the Conservative government's front bench actually presided over, that killed 7 people in 2000.
Yet here we are, three years on from the report of the independent investigator, Sheila Weatherill, into the listeria outbreak of 2008, in the midst of the largest beef recall in Canadian history, with 15 people sick and consumer confidence once again rattled, unjustly punishing Canadian cattle farmers who are producing good, safe beef.
The manner in which the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food handled his file is an embarrassment, trivializing the listeria outbreak, as he did, claiming it was contained. His mismanagement of the recall and communications around the E. coli contamination are directly to blame for the negative impact on our cattle ranchers and exporters.
However, he is not alone in the blame. Every Conservative member who stood and supported cuts to the budget and a number of inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, before he or she had an idea of what resources were necessary to successfully protect our food safety system, should take a long, hard look in the mirror.
As we stand here to debate this issue today, we are 45 days removed from when American food inspectors found E. coli in a shipment of beef destined for the U.S. and stopped it at the border a day before Canadian officials first became aware of an E. coli contamination at the Brooks, Alberta, XL Foods meat processing plant.
Had the minister learned the lessons from past failures of food safety, this is where our story would end. In fact, had the minister treated food safety on at least an equal footing as trade, the contaminated meat would not have left the plant at all.
Two weeks after becoming aware of a contamination of E. coli 0157, the same pathogen that killed seven in Walkerton in 2000, did the CFIA first issued a recall on XL Foods beef. The minister attempted to have Canadians believe this was standard. However, he neglected at the time to mention that beef only started being recalled three full days after the Americans had delisted the plant, shutting their doors to any more product from Brooks.
On September 25, even as the recall was expanding daily, the minister informed the House:
I reiterate that none of the product made it to store shelves and no illnesses have been linked back to this particular strain of E. coli. We have actually done a tremendous job.
Two days later, the XL Foods plant was closed. Surely, the minister knew the closure was coming when he misled Canadians.
Had the minister waited as long to gloat as he had to initiate a recall, he would have known that 15 Canadians would fall ill due to this strain of E. coli, including a four-year-old girl who suffered kidney failure as a result of coming into contact with contaminated meat.
Now, just the other day, the minister dismissed our concerns by stating that all 15 had recovered and had gone on with their lives, but as I am sure a doctor could tell the minister, one does not just walk away from kidney failure.
We were extremely fortunate that no one died, but that is no consolation, not enough for the victims of this contamination, and it is certainly does not reassure the vulnerable Canadians who might fall victim to the next possible contamination should the Conservative government not correct its course on food safety.
Of course, it is important to note that it was XL Foods that failed Canadians first by not tracking E. coli trends or maintaining adequate sanitation standards, which would have prevented such a widespread contamination, but it was the minister who compounded that failure by refusing to provide adequate resources to inspectors at the front line to investigate and enforce our food safety standards. Senior management of the CFIA, following last spring's budget cuts, acknowledged that we could not cut 10% of the budget without affecting the front line.
The government failed to properly communicate with Canadians. If we learned anything from the listeria crisis in 2008, it is that clear, open communications are necessary to address concerns and reassure Canadians. People want to be told the truth, but the Conservatives do not believe Canadians deserve the truth.
We still have so many unanswered questions. When did the minister become aware of the E. coli contamination? Why did it only take the United States days to initially confirm E. coli contamination, but it took Canadian officials two weeks? How did the sanitation situation get so bad at the Brooks facility to warrant being shut down now for three weeks?
This kind of food safety decay does not happen overnight. A facility does not get shut down for three weeks for a faulty nozzle. It gets shut down for three weeks because there are major compliance problems from the top to bottom.
The minister was clear that the Brooks facility boasted 40 inspectors and 6 veterinarians. How many of those inspectors are fully trained on the compliance verification system? Is he aware that the level of training should be 100% of inspectors and that they are not fully trained because there are not enough inspectors to go around and replace inspectors in training? How about this one, were the 46 CFIA staff on the ground in Brooks enough for the 4,400 head of cattle every day?
Canadians need answers. Simply put, consumers will not trust their food supply until the government opens up about what went wrong and what is being done to fix it. However, as we know, Conservatives do not believe Canadians deserve to know the truth.
There is no trust when the government insists everything is under control and yet the recall continues to expand daily, over a month after initially being put into force. That uncertainty is hurting ranchers across Canada. It is one thing that a facility that processes nearly 40% of our beef is out of commission because if its health and safety lapses and farmers are scrambling to find other processors for their livestock; it is entirely another that because the government does not trust Canadians with the truth about food safety, consumer confidence is shot.
We have given the government every opportunity to explain itself. Earlier this month, I called for and was granted an emergency debate on the XL issue, except the minister could not be bothered to participate and left behind his talking points to act as cold comfort to Canadians. He has since shown his true colours and called the debate, which was an effort to get to the truth, “silly”, an emergency of a nature that the Speaker of the House agreed was worthy of a debate granted only sparingly. What is truly silly is that the minister will not take his responsibilities for food safety seriously and he continues to trivialize it.
I also put a motion on notice for the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food to call before our committee all the relevant witnesses and experts from the CFIA, to XL Foods, to inspectors on the ground to discover what really happened.
Hon. members will note that my motion is no longer on notice and the committee will not be dealing with it further. They can draw necessary assumptions as to what happened while in camera on a Conservative dominated committee.
Perhaps some of those members elected from Alberta should reconsider the position of their government in the face of appeals from both the Progressive Conservative government in Alberta and its Wildrose opposition along with Liberals and New Democrats who all agree there is a definite need for a public inquiry. However, we already know Conservatives believe we cannot be trusted with the truth.
Just last week, I sent a request to the minister's office to reinstate a technical briefing for the members and senators on the respective agricultural committees that the minister's office cancelled and while the minister feels comfortable enough making comments about its cancellation, his office has yet to reschedule the meeting or even give me the dignity of a response. The Conservatives simply do not trust Canadians with the truth.
That could be why they have refused to call for a comprehensive third party resource audit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which we have requested as early as October 3. I thank the member for Welland for including it in his motion today.
In fact, the audit was first called for by the independent investigator into the listeria outbreak, Sheila Weatherill, who said:
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.
Accordingly Ms. Weatherill recommended:
To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should retain third-party experts to conduct a 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.
To this day that has not yet been done. A mere survey was undertaken. The former president of the CFIA, Carole Swan, stated that the review was not the same as a comprehensive audit. The government cannot answer who its inspectors are, what their roles are or where they are located. The Conservatives obviously cannot answer the question of whether there are enough inspectors or if we might need more. Yet this spring Conservative MPs stood up en masse to slash the CFIA's budget and lay off food safety workers. On that, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has already confirmed that there were $16 million in cuts and 308 jobs lost.
Accordingly, the hon. member for Toronto Centre, the interim leader of the Liberal Party, wrote to the Auditor General at the beginning of October asking him to begin an immediate audit of all Government of Canada resources supporting food safety in Canada, as well as to issue recommendations for changes and improvements.
While the government's new food safety legislation, Bill S-11, was before the Senate, we asked that the bill be amended to require a comprehensive audit at least once every five years. Sadly, that amendment was defeated both at committee and at third reading yesterday by a Conservative dominated Senate.
What possible reason could the government have for voting against our amendment except that it remains afraid of the truth? Even more than it being beneficial to ensuring that further outbreaks would be minimized or avoided, a regular audit would simply be good for any institution. A review is not effective if it is internal either. We need outside auditors without an agenda to make sure that we are getting things right. That is the healthy way to find efficiencies. It is common sense for fresh eyes to see what is missing, and we are fortunate in Canada to have an officer of Parliament who specializes in that, the Auditor General.
One would think that food safety, if it were such a priority for the government, would be at the top of the list for areas under review and scrutiny.
The truth is that the government made a mistake by cutting those resources in the last budget, but even more startling is that the Conservatives have not devoted the appropriate resources all along, and they know it. More concerned with communication victories than public safety, Conservatives are now caught empty-handed as Canadian consumers and Canadian cattle ranchers come looking for answers.
They are not even ashamed that Canadian facilities are now in line for audits by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service. The organization that found the contamination in the first place and was first to shut down shipments from the plant after finding subsequent positive tests is now coming to audit us. That is a standard move by one country importing from another, but how are they supposed to have confidence in our system if we will not open the books up for them to look at? Are we really going to start relying on American food inspectors to catch our mistakes and then clean up after us too? None of that would restore consumer confidence and it would not help our ranchers sell their livestock.
We need some solutions.
First, the government should order a third-party comprehensive audit of all resources, including the human resources of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The minister has shown that outside of lacking the will to act on this file, he is too close to the industry and has proven that he cannot be trusted to do it objectively.
I agree that we need to be opening doors to trade, but to save the government from itself we should make sure that we are working not just to open new trade doors but also that we can guarantee food safety standards that keep those doors open, doors that take years to open and only days to slam shut.
Second, the government should have open communication with the Canadian people. Here is where it should start: “Our beef is safe”. Full stop. “XL Foods went out of control because we did not have the resources in place to ensure it was properly policing itself”. Full stop. “We will have an independent auditor to determine the resources they need and give them what they require”. Full stop.
Canadians need to know that it is not uncommon for E. coli to be present in raw meat and that through safe cooking, proper sanitation and cleanliness, meat is perfectly safe to eat. When it gets into muscle cuts and is as widespread as this, it is a result of a lapse in food security. Canadians need to know that from coast to coast Canadian cattle ranchers are raising healthy, safe beef. They should not be punished for XL's lapses or for the CFIA's lack of resources.
In her report, Ms. Weatherill said, “Until the system is remedied, events like those of the summer of 2008 remain a real risk”. Despite that being three years ago, here we are again and her initial concerns still ring true. When these events recur there is collateral damage. Getting out in front of the situation would have eliminated or minimized it. It is just another example of how poorly the minister handled this.
The Conservatives argue that all of these issues would be resolved by Bill S-11. They have created a myth that Bill S-11 is key to ensuring that inspectors have all the resources they need. It is not true. I will grant that it is an important step toward modernizing; however, it is one thing to build a new car and yet another to ensure there are the resources for a driver and gas.
The authority highlighted by the Prime Minister, his Minister of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary is one that inspectors already have. The Meat Inspection Act already gives powers compelling:
—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.
Additionally, current regulations state:
The owner or person in charge of a place...and every person found in that place...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 why beef is safe in other abattoirs in this country, because they have the authority. They do not need Bill S-11. For those who remain unconvinced, I would invite interested members to visit the CFIA website and read one of the six new guides for inspection from February of this year and peruse “A Processor's Guide to Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Inspections”. The bottom line of that guide is that “You are legally required to provide information to, and assist, an inspector, when requested”.
As we discuss Bill S-11 further, I sincerely hope that none of that is lost in translation and that the members opposite will be more open to constructive amendments than their colleagues in the other place. What remains clear is that this minister and the Conservative government did not learn their lessons from the listeriosis outbreak. Until they do, food safety will remain a question and consumers and producers will be left wondering when the next crisis will arise. For all our sakes, even though it has taken more than a month to do so, I urge decisive action to restore consumer confidence now.