Mr. Speaker, it has been famously said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
The motion before the House today is concerned with exactly that. Not only is the government repeating history by making reckless cuts to essential government services that protect the health and safety of Canadians, but it is doing it knowing full well what tragic consequences can arise.
I will be sharing my time with the member for Etobicoke North.
Sitting on the front benches of the government are ministers who, while senior members of the Mike Harris government in Ontario, were at the wheel when essential government services were cut, leading to the deaths of seven people and the serious illness of thousands of residents of Walkerton. In this day and age, it is unthinkable that Canadians should have to question the quality or safety of their food or water, yet it was a Conservative government in Ontario that created a health and safety vacuum when it cut water monitoring, among other essential government services, to create efficiencies in the late 1990s. Justice O'Connor, in his subsequent investigation into the Walkerton tragedy, cited the pursuit of these efficiencies as key among the reasons the whole water quality monitoring system broke down.
As if that were not enough, we are barely four years removed from the outbreak of listeria at Maple Leaf Foods, which tragically killed 22 and left many other Canadians seriously ill. In the wake of the listeria contamination outbreak, the Weatherill report recommended not only increased funding for more inspectors but also a significant government investment in the necessary infrastructure to ensure that the Canadian public is never again at risk from food we would never expect to be dangerous.
These illnesses target the most vulnerable in our society: children and seniors, those who need and deserve our protection the most. It is entirely reckless to go ahead and tell Canadians, children, seniors, and men and women with dietary restrictions and allergies that in the wake of such tragedies, they are now responsible to eat at their own risk.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada experienced the most severe cuts of all the departments in the most recent Conservative budget. Among those cuts is a cut of $56.1 million to the budget of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Now, my colleagues opposite will have us know, as soon as I am done speaking, that they have invested a considerable sum of money in the CFIA this year as well; of course, it is still significantly less than they are cutting, leaving a funding deficit of approximately $5 million.
Conservatives would also have us believe that these cuts will be found from internal efficiencies and that there will be no front-line changes that would place the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Unfortunately, they neglected to inform senior management, who told CFIA staff quite the opposite, saying:
I don't know how you take 10% of your budget and not deal with the front line.
Front-line staff are not “efficiencies”. They are not a reduction in the paper budget or a readjustment of administration or management, and they are certainly not a reduction in an excessive advertising budget.
There were approximately 1,200 food inspectors in Canada before the listeriosis outbreak in 2008. In the last two years, the CFIA has added 70 meat inspectors to respond to the outbreak and another 100 in order to comply with the higher inspection standards of the United States. Members opposite will argue that there were some 700 net new inspectors since 2006; however, a majority of these additional staff members have nothing to do with food inspection. They are not front-line staff; it is just that everyone was given the title “inspector”.
This is particularly important when we consider that only about 2% of imported food is inspected as it enters Canada. Right now when meat is imported into Canada, it is cleared separately, because it is a higher-risk product; however, in the same town hall where senior managers at CFIA informed staff that there was no way they could avoid affecting front-line services, they also announced that as part of cuts to food inspection, they will be eliminating the program to pre-clear and track imported meat shipments.
Considering that meat inspectors clear and track 50,000 shipments a year, axing this program means less scrutiny and less information about high-risk imports.
Cuts to food inspection will also affect interprovincial imports and exports, with cuts to jobs at the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques where inspectors spray down soil-contaminated vehicles to prevent the spread of potato cyst nematode. If the nematodes are allowed to get into P.E.I. or other maritime soil, the result would be near destruction of the potato industry as the disease spreads across the area.
Unfortunately this new, less thorough, approach to inspecting imports is coupled with what CFIA senior management calls a radical re-engineering of the inspection process. CFIA executives informed staff that they would be transitioned largely from food inspectors to systems inspectors only. The difference is fundamental: they will no longer be food safety inspectors, but instead paper-pushers who will oversee industry self-policing. In large part, this environment existed before the listeriosis crisis, yet the Conservative government has ignored all of the valuable lessons most Canadians learned in the wake of that tragedy.
Industry cannot solely be relied upon for food safety regulation and verification, which is why we do not rely on any industry or body to police itself, especially when the results could be as dire as they were in Walkerton or at Maple Leaf Foods; however, the government, which is ideologically opposed to regulation, is letting ideology and politics interfere with safety.
Consumer protection inspectors verify the accuracy of product nutrition claims, which is critical safety information for diabetes sufferers or Canadians living with heart disease, high blood pressure or other life-threatening allergies. On top of cutting the verification of product labels, CFIA has also cut its verification of restaurant menu claims as well as product net weight claims.
Now more than ever, Canadians are more conscious about the food they are eating in terms of salt intake, fat content, and wheat or peanut content, and rightly so. Postmedia showed in an article on April 20 that some of the country's biggest food brands, in some cases, drastically understated the quantities of harmful nutrients while inversely overstating the presence of healthy nutrients.
According to these CFIA tests, of the 600 products tested, more than half were inconsistent with the information on the packaging, with information in some cases off by nearly 90%. That significant a variation is a terrifying proposition for a mother with a child suffering from celiac disease, for a middle-aged man who needs to regulate his sodium intake in order to regulate his blood pressure or for a diabetic whose day-to-day health is contingent on a very rigorous diet. Canadians with serious dietary restrictions will have to look at every food product as though it is labelled “use at your own risk”.
More astonishingly, the only remedy left by the government in the wake of the vacuum it has now created is an online portal where consumers can contact companies directly with their complaint. Perhaps Conservative members can answer me this: what good is a web inquiry to a mom whose child is in the hospital?
In the Conservative war on experts and information, the health and food safety professionals are no longer the first line of defence, but it certainly appears now that everyday Canadians are the last. My deepest fear is that it could be too late by the time anyone needs to report an inaccurate label.
This is no less than the second wave of cuts. Not even six months ago, the Conservatives slashed the CFIA budget by $33.5 million, including $17.4 million dedicated specifically toward increased inspectors and inspections. The Conservative government argued these funds already had an expiration date, yet instead of implementing a permanent infrastructure to protect Canadians against food-borne illness, it followed these early cuts with more and deeper cuts in this budget.
In the 2008 election, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made an inappropriate joke at the expense of the victims of the listeriosis outbreak. He was rightly criticized for it at the time. I would like to think that he had learned his lesson and no longer saw food safety as a joke.
I am certain there is no member in the House who wishes to see another food tragedy. I am certain that should another befall Canadians, the Conservative government will wring its hands and be quite contrite. We can, however, avoid that to the extent possible by continuing to support the regulations now in place, the regulations that came about and were informed by Walkerton and by the listeriosis outbreak.
We have come too far to make the same fatal, costly mistakes. It is not too late for all members of the House to support reversing these cuts and restore peace of mind to the Canadian public that its food is not only the best but also the safest.