Public Values

Food safety compromised by self-management

Proposed overhaul from Harper means more deregulation

Bob Kingston warns that more Maple Leaf-type disasters could lay ahead with Conservative changes.by Ish Theilheimer

OTTAWA, Sept. 4, 08: The kind of deregulation linked to the Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak in August that has killed 13 Canadians so far, could be a sign of what is in store under the Conservatives, says a veteran food inspector.

Bob Kingston says Stephen Harper's promise to overhaul food safety means the health of Canadians will increasingly be in the hands of company Self- Management Systems (SMS), such as the one used at Maple Leaf. Public inspectors will be less informed and involved.

"These guys are hell-bent on doing this kind of stuff," says Bob Kingston, President of the Agriculture Union, which is part of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. "Public opinion is pretty consistently in support of government regulation of the food industry. The problem is that when Harper says the whole system needs to be overhauled, what the public doesn't get is that he's talking about more deregulation.

"Public opinion is on the right track," with a public system inspection, he said. "They're just being duped."

"This is a serious concern," Harper told reporters last week. "That's why I indicated ... that it's necessary to reform and revamp our food and product inspection regimes."

In April, the federal government introduced an SMS-style food inspection system that puts the main onus for inspection on companies, who are required to file a food safety plan and submit reports on their own compliance. Public inspectors now spend most of their time reviewing company reports and very little time in the plants where food is actually processed.

Companies like Maple Leaf pushed hard for the new system, says Kingston, because it saves them money they would have paid for inspectors, along with "the cost factor when inspectors close down production because they don't like what they see. Now, instead of closing a line, they'll get get 'corrective action support.'"

The government was also eager to adopt the new system to save money, he says. "It sure keeps the inspectors out of the plant and prevents inspectors from having as much dialogue wth employees. Employees like to talk. They will tell them things you'll never hear any other way."

The Conservatives claim the Maple Leaf food recall is actually a signal that the new system is working. Health minister Tony Clement told an Ottawa news conference that even though six people have died from the recent outbreak of listeriosis, the system worked well in preventing harm to consumers.

"The surveillance system picked up a problem that was occurring and allowed us to respond efficiently and effectively to an emerging public health issue," he said. "This is an example of where our surveillance system worked."

Kingston is skeptical. Although inspectors still have full regulatory authority to close down a production line, he says, "The problem is they're so busy doing audit paths, they don't have time to go around and exercise all these wonderful authorities. Basically what they're doing now is telling the third party how well they're behaving in terms of their own plan," says Kingston.

He is hearing similar reports from inspectors across Canada. "Inspection staff are coming forward, saying they've been feeling bad since the new systsem came into place," on April 1. "People are run off their feet, they're not comfortable with what they're not seeing. It's universal. I'm hearing it from members I haven't heard from in years, who are not known union supporters, from right across country."

Kingston is concerned with the length of time it took Maple Leaf to notify authorities of problems detected in its plant. "Every time a reporter asked Maple Leaf Foods' president Michael McCain if they informed an inspector when they had positive lab findings, the only reply was that the info 'was available.' There are two questions I'd ask: was there a requirement to notify an inspector, and did you? And if it wasn't why not? The manual of procedures says very clearly if you get a positive result, you'll notify an inspector, and you'll have a plan in place, within 10 days."

"It alarms me that many Canadians seem to think the current government would look after their food safety intersts better. This government wants to turn it all over to industry."

In July, a CFIA scientist publicly leaked a cabinet document that outlined a plan to downsize the federal role in food safety. The document, which CFIA employee Luc Pomerleau leaked to the media, called for a shift from a "full-time presence" of veterinarians and inspectors at abattoirs in Canada to an "oversight role" that would allow the meat industry "to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks." Pomerleau was later fired for leaking it to his union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Harper Index - Consumers at risk due to cuts to federal science and inspection programs

Privatization vs. Public Values Frame
  Overhaul - more deregulation / Public accountabilty, safety and protection

Links and sources
  Harper takes election cover under food inspection inquiry, NUPGE News, Sept. 5, 2008

Posted: September 05, 2008

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