By Ryan McGreal
Published September 18, 2008
If the epic finance fustercluck-in-slow-motion spilling out from south of the border demonstrates anything at all, it's that the market does not self-regulate very well, and that it's ultimately far cheaper to regulate before the fact than to clean up the inevitable messes after the fact.
Unfortunately, the simplistic mantra of deregulation and industry self-regulation is just so compelling a narrative, despite the mountains of evidence against it, that some political parties just seem to find it too irresistable to give up.
Stephen Harper has long advocated what he calls the incremental approach to shifting this country to the right so that it ceases to be, as he calls it, "a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and proud of it."
He has already claimed during this election campaign that Canadians have become more conservative during his time as Prime Minister, though acknowledging that some of his party's MPs are to the right of the national mainstream.
Unfortunately, even as he calls a snap election two and a half years into his minority Parliament, the right-wing policies he has advanced are already starting to unravel.
Luc Pomerleau, a biologist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for 20 years, discovered a non-secured document on the Agency intranet that detailed a controversial government plan to shift responsibility for food safety and labelling from the government to industry last May.
The plan was drafted by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and approved by the Treasury Board last November. Included in the leaked documents was a letter from Treasury Board Secretary Wayne Wouters to CFIA President Carole Swan warning that the plan has "significant communication risks" - a statement eerily reminiscent of the infamous "selling job" memo the Mulroney Government distributed internally in 1985 about the planned Free Trade Agreement.
As a report in Canwest News noted, the plan reflects "a direction in which the agency has been heading for years and the union has long voiced concerns about the impact of such a shift on jobs and the food safety of Canadians."
Pomerleau forwarded the letter to his union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), and the union brought it up at a subsequent union-management meeting.
The Agency discovered who had forwarded the document and fired Pomerleau for "gross misconduct" and breaching security, an action that was decried by whistleblower advocates.
When Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was asked about the incident, he denied that Pomerleau was a whistleblower. "The whistleblower was the gentleman who turned Mr. Pomerleau in."
PIPSC president Michèle Demers wrote a withering assessment of the dismissal:
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.
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.
The Harper government has since backtracked on whether all the aspects of this plan will go ahead, though they do plan to proceed with letting the meat industry regulate its own product labelling.
This is so reckless to the public interest that even the meat industry itself is calling the plan "dangerous".
While the government talks about "reducing the regulatory burden" on companies and letting the industry "take the lead in fulfilling their responsibility for consumer protection," food policy experts warn that deregulation is akin to "playing Russian Roulette with the Canadian public."Listeriosis Outbreak
The Pomerleau incident gained new prominence as the listeriosis outbreak spread across the country in August, with a dramatic recall from Maple Leaf Foods and at least sixteen confirmed deaths from 43 confirmed infections related to the outbreak. Harper responded by issuing a food recall and calling for an investigation (which conveniently will not take place until after the snap election).
The September 16, 2008 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal has a damning editorial (PDF link) that points the finger at the Federal government for dismantling the regulatory oversight that should have prevented this from happening.
The article identified the CFIA policy of food industry self-inspection (including the operators of animal feed mills, whose unsafe practices had led to the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalitis, or "Mad Cow Disease"); national standards that are lower than many other industrialized countries (instead of raising its standards to match the higher American standard, the government actually lobbied the US government to lower its standards); the lack of remedial steps after the outbreak began; and eliminating the Public Health Agency of Canada Ministry that was created in response to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
In practice, the new policy meant that CFIA inspectors would rarely enter meat plants to test for bacteria and testing was left mostly to companies. Self-inspection came largely to substitute for, and not just to supplement, government inspection. Self-inspection mechanisms have worked effectively in other countries, but in Canada something went very wrong. One troubling sign is that even now, months after the policy change, the CFIA's required sampling procedure remains under development.
Maple Leaf Foods, the company at whose plant the Listeria contamination originated, was an early adopter of the government's new plan. And why not? The new policy made self-inspection easy: the company had to keep up good manufacturing practices in its plant and to test finished products just once monthly.
The editorial also criticized the Harper government for its choice in how to structure the investigation of the listeriosis epidemic: no truly independent investigator "at arms' length from the government", no power to subpoena witnesses or documents, no public input, and no promise to publish its findings, let alone act on them.
So much for Harper's promises of transparency and accountability.
Gerry Ritz, the Agriculture Minister who drafted the government's food safety deregulation, has since come under criticism for tasteless jokes he made about the listeriosis epidemic and its potential to harm the government's image. The Star reports:
"This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts," Ritz quipped after fretting about the political dangers of the crisis.
And when told during the conference call about a new death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz remarked: "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter."
Easter, the Liberal MP for the P.E.I. riding of Malpeque, is his party's agriculture critic.
Now, I'm the last person to criticize someone for an irreverent sense of humour. Ritz is not the first person to make inappropriate wisecracks about sensitive subjects with heroically poor timing.
(I have such an unfortunate tendency myself, as my frequently groaning friends can attest, so it would be hypocritical of me to decry this in others.)
The issue is not so much that Ritz was joking about Listeriosis deaths as it was that he was joking about Listeriosis deaths when it was his own party's policies that allowed this preventable outbreak to happen in the first place.