Public Values

Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulator fired for leaking government plan

Canadians' health and safety risked by handing regulation to unaccountable private sector.

Michele Demers is president of Professional Institute of the Public Service of Michèle Demers

When an honest and dedicated food safety professional is fired just for the sake of a communications plan, we must all be very wary of the direction the country is headed. Luc Pomerleau was fired by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) last week for releasing a government document implementing the shift of food inspection from government to food manufacturers and distributers.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Pomerleau was alarmed by the vision of the fox guarding the henhouse. In his position at the service of Canadians, Mr. Pomerleau was part of a large team of government scientists and regulators assigned as the watchdog for all food produced in or imported into Canada. After studying the document, he became concerned for the health of his own children and for all Canadians. He made the right choice, even if his boss does not think so. Transferring the responsibility to industry is not the right thing to do.

Mr. Harper is selling off his own country — our country — one vital piece at a time. All of us should beware. The privatization initiative: brokering federal laboratories and buildings, contracting out government services to the lowest bidder, including much of the information technology work, and now delegating the food inspection and product labelling to private industry, is all at a huge cost to us taxpayers. Are we Canadians at risk? Is our security and safety jeopardized? What will the cost be in the long run?

Mr. Harper and his minority Conservative government are secretly implementing their privatization agenda. As months go by, that ideology has started to permeate all levels of government departments and services. By handing public services over to a non-elected, non-accountable private sector, they are risking Canadians' health and safety one decision at a time. Most disconcerting is the dismantling of the regulatory functions of the federal government. Who will bear the brunt of these decisions? We will. Even though Mr. Harper promised us accountability and transparency, he is clearly moving in secrecy.

Canadians have faced a number of human health or animal health crises, such as SARS, mad cow disease, avian influenza, and E. coli in produce. The adverse effects have been mitigated by the quick and effective work done at CFIA, Health Canada and other federal departments. Food allergies are on the rise, and children, in as early as grade 1, are taught how to read labels. We purchase, eat and drink items from all over the world. We do so with the trust that many vigilant, hard-working professionals have ensured a high level of safety. Furthermore we have faith that the information on the labels is accurate and truthful because of CFIA's high reputation. In this global economy, it is the wrong time for the government to withdraw from the inspection of animal feed mills, the certification of commercial seed and the elimination of mandatory label registration of meat and processed products. Implementing self-policing for the food industry will never be the right choice.

This government's actions are induced by an ominous exercise titled "strategic review". The review requires that government departments and agencies reallocate 5 % of their budgets to some unnamed new priority. Whatever way you figure, five per cent is a fair chunk of change. There is very little information available on strategic review. Will access to confidential reports be the only way to find out what Mr. Harper and his Cabinet have in store for Canadians? More to the point, has the government done the necessary risk analysis of the impact on Canadians' well-being to prove that these cutbacks are scientifically sound?

Reviewing programs can be necessary, but setting an arbitrary financial target for cuts is not. Financial cuts mean fewer services. Canada is not a discount store where you get a smiley face when you roll back the prices. We don't want the CFIA to be diminished to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks. What will happen in a crisis situation, after Mr. Harper has sold off the laboratories and dismissed all the regulators? By the time the managers in Ottawa find out, it will be very late in the process. And by then, will the CFIA have the expertise to deal with the issue and save lives? The Australian privatization model, of which Mr. Harper is so fond, created just such a problem. Australian public affairs experts have noted that the system has efficiencies, but public health benefits are less apparent. The system is less accessible to consumers, and decision-making processes are not open or transparent. Finally, the science has been separated from the core policy-making process, rendering the system more vulnerable to political agendas and processes.

This summer, we Canadians need not worry about having tomatoes on our burgers and in our salads. This is not the case south of our border. This is just one example where our system of government regulators is superior to the American model of more self-regulation. Canada employs scientists and regulators for a very good reason: our health. Canadian public regulators are so well respected that they are invited by other countries to implement Canadian-style systems and educate new government regulators. This is based on the reputation of our existing system of public regulation, not the stripped-down private sector one that Mr. Harper is planning.

The Pomerleau issue will have a far-reaching negative effect and long-lasting repercussions on the health and welfare of us all. An invisible gag order has just blanketed the entire public service. Scientists, researchers, regulators and other government experts will be fearful of speaking up when dangerous situations arise. In order to maximize industry profits and fund future government 'strategic reviews' corners will be cut. When the regulated become the regulators, a true assessment of the risks cannot be accomplished. Contaminated food will enter our food supply. Accidents are bound to happen, and we will be left wondering how our government could have let them happen. So much for accountability, Mr. Harper.

Michèle Demers is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, on whose website this first appeared.

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Saving money. / Safeguarding human health.
  Eliminating bureaucracy. / Ensuring accountability.
  Betraying an employer. / Serving the public.

Links and sources
  Canada at Risk, by Michèle Demers, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada website,

Posted: July 28, 2008

  Public services
  Front lines
  Voices of privatization

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