Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Newton—North Delta.
This is a major crisis we are going through. The facts are clear. This is the largest meat recall in Canadian history, affecting more than 1,500 products across the country, and that is not insignificant.
A number of things concern me about the safety of our food, in this case in particular. First, it was the Americans who first discovered the E. coli bacteria in the meat, before our Canadian inspectors did.
I know that the Conservatives, including the Minister of Agriculture, said today in Calgary that there were just a few hours between the time when the U.S. inspectors sounded the alarm and the time when Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors did, but the fact remains that the Americans were first.
If memory serves me correctly, this is the second major crisis discovered by the Americans. The same thing happened when the Sandoz drug manufacturing plant closed in January. I am not questioning the competence or dedication of the officials. I am questioning the reliability of the system in which they are working.
Canadians have to have trust in their government inspection systems, but in this case they have reason to doubt. We must restore their confidence. Unfortunately, the way the Conservatives are managing the current crisis is doing nothing to reassure the public. It took far too long for the products to be recalled and the abattoir to be closed after the E. coli bacteria was discovered.
The statements by the Minister of Agriculture, who initially said no tainted products made their way to grocery store shelves and then had to issue a recall, do nothing to inspire confidence, especially when we see the list of recalled products getting longer every day.
The worst thing in all this is that the health of Canadians was put in jeopardy by the government's inaction. The E. coli bacteria is not innocuous. Most of the people infected will show no symptoms; others will have relatively minor, but very unpleasant stomach ailments, such as cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, headaches and fever.
Symptoms can appear within 5 to 10 days following contamination, and infected people can also pass on the bacteria to their loved ones. The number of people affected is therefore likely to increase beyond the five confirmed and 23 suspected cases. In the most serious cases, the E. coli bacteria can cause life-threatening symptoms, including kidney failure, epileptic seizures and stroke.
In some cases, fortunately a small number of cases, the bacteria can cause permanent damage such as kidney damage, especially among high-risk groups, which include pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, young children and seniors. I was very upset to learn that a young boy is suffering from kidney failure.
The second thing that concerns me is the rhetoric being spewed by the members opposite regarding food inspection. I know my colleagues opposite received the same emails that I did. I received hundreds of emails from the people of my riding expressing their concerns about the cuts to food inspection and the changes made regarding labelling. Considering the crisis we are now facing, they are right to be worried.
And yet how many times—today alone—have we heard the Conservatives say that food safety is important to this government and to Canadians, or that our food inspection system is one of the best in the world?
If our system is so good and if food safety is a priority, why was the Canadian Food Inspection Agency not spared from the budget cuts? Why did the government cut more than $46 million and why were more than 300 positions eliminated? Why will funding for the food safety program be reduced from $355 million in 2011-12 to $337 million in 2014-15? Are we aiming for a middle-of-the-road food safety system? Canadians deserve better. They deserve the best system.
These cuts are even more surprising when we consider that, according to the Public Service Alliance, the minister was apparently warned in January 2009 in a briefing note from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that the inspection program could not handle the workload and meet delivery requirements. I do not understand why the minister is now reducing the number of inspectors.
When it comes to food safety, there should be no compromising because Canadians' health is at stake. The Conservatives have been telling us for months that cuts to the public service will not affect Canadians. We know that this is not the case. Cuts of more than $46 million and the elimination of more than 300 positions, including 100 CFIA inspectors, will have consequences. I could say the same thing about the $5 billion in cuts and the 19,000 jobs lost in the public service.
There is something wrong with the system, and we have the right to answers from the Minister of Agriculture. The fact that American authorities were the first to discover the contamination is disturbing. But there is nothing more disturbing than learning that, despite the positive test results on September 4 and 5, the public was not notified until September 16. That is quite simply unacceptable because Canadians' health was put at risk. We need to know what went wrong and ensure that it does not happen again.