Health

State of Listeria: Government Oversight Could Have Prevented Outbreak

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.

Food Safety

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.

Death by a Thousand Cold Cuts

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted September 18, 2008 at 16:09:41

It's amazing to me that anyone think Harper has more integrity than the Grits he bumped out in 2004. He's worse than they ever were - at least Martin launched a major independent investigation into AdScam and put all the party's dirty laundry out in the open, and he got crucified for making himself and his party accountable.

I guess Harper learned the lesson, because he's even more secretive and authoritarian than Chretien ever was (and that's saying something), I don't think we'd ever learn about AdScam if it happened today under Harper's watch.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 19, 2008 at 08:49:01

Nobrainer, I think you're quite wrong. Martin had nothing to lose which is why he put out his party's dirty laundry. What you perceive as "authoritarian" can in fact be attributed to a leader working to present a united front to people or more simply stated, not arguing in front of the children. I'm not one to run after every conspiracy theory simply because it's "alternative" and I also don't believe one person's opinion can be called fact. I've written many emails of which, if you take parts out, would cause me to say things I never wanted to say or said in error. Give me a break. This is why when you look at something you need to get a bird's eye view of it before making a judgement call.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2008 at 18:15:54

Wait, it gets wierder.. Here are some stats for Alberta alone..

* 2007 – 11 cases
* 2006 – 7 cases
* 2005 – 7 cases
* 2004 – 5 cases
* 2003 – 10 cases

Why was this not considered an "outbreak"??? Why did the media consider it an outbreak when there were under 10 Canada-wide? Could they see into the future that there would be many more cases? Too strange.. What is Harper up to anyway?

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2008 at 18:16:55

here is the source for my stats above:
www.health.alberta.ca/public/listeriosis-in-Alberta.html

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 19, 2008 at 22:51:15

I'm glad you referenced the mess going on in the US. Where are all the 'free market' advocates now?? Too busy trying to pick themselves up off the floor having been turned upside down to the tune of $1 trillion in corporate bailouts?? Some people refuse to turn off the TV long enough to actually think. It's a shame.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted September 21, 2008 at 13:37:16

Another important issue is size, of both farming operations and processing plants. Given that such outbreaks can have widespread consequences, it makes sense to limit the extent of them by limiting size. This can benefit business in limiting liability, there is much less to be lost in culling a herd of a few hundred than one of thousands, or shutting down a huge processing plant that constitutes most or all of your business.

The economies of scale have diminishing returns, so the economic defense for massive farms / plants is weak. Additionally, returning to more plants / herds, each smaller than modern silliness has in fashion, and more limited in product destination makes it faster and easier to detect and stop disease epidemics. I'm puzzled by what regulatory or insurance conditions might shield processors from the negative economic consequences of oversizing. Maybe it's like Ford deciding to pay out lawsuits instead of redesigning gas tanks prone to rear end explosions.

This is only the food safety argument for smaller scale, there is an additive argument about environmental degradation and transportation needs that is just as powerful.

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