Food and food safety top-of-mind

Food and food safety are top-of-mind issues for Canadians. The deaths caused by listeriosis contamination at the Maple Leaf plant remains a serious warning of the perils of losing food inspectors.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has a credibility problem. CFIA has an inherent conflict of interest, mandated to regulate for food safety, while at the same time mandated to promote Canadian food products in Canada and abroad. This, plus a lack of preparedness, accounts for the delay on blowing the whistle on the listeriosis outbreak due to Maple Leaf luncheon meats in 2008, in which 22 people died. The report on the outbreak from independent investigator Sheila Weatherill (former head of Edmonton’s health system) noted that increasingly large, factory food preparation increased risks to health and safety.

However, the recommendations focused only on more inspections and more chemical cleaning instead of reforming the food system to encourage smaller, more traceable operations.

Just as Canadians were reeling from the listeriosis outbreak, a memo from inside CFIA was leaked indicating the Harper government’s plans to cut the number of inspectors. The inspector, who found the Treasury Board memo outlining the planned cuts (on a shared server at CFIA) and sent it to his union, was fired.

Naturally, one would expect the minister to have a high degree of sensitivity around food safety issues. The budgetary changes in the 2012 budget are a bit hard to track. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is being cut by $56.1-million over the next three years. Elsewhere in the budget, there is a new $51.2-million for “strengthening food safety.” These funds are described as being required to meet the commitments to the recommendations of the Weatherill Report. The funds are to be distributed between CFIA, the Public Health Agency and Health Canada.

Some food labelling information is to be removed from labels and placed on websites. It is not certain how this represents a savings.

While there are many issues about how CFIA will protect human health going forward, there are many more issues related to plant health. This is a core area of federal responsibility for agriculture. Science is required to identify threats to plant health. Plant health is, in turn, essential for the health of the industry. The announced closure of the Plant Science Centre on the Saanich Peninsula is a case in point. (I admit to having a very strong personal interest in pleading for the centre to remain open as it is in my riding).

The research there is key to maintaining the growth of the wine industry, as well as other fruit tree-based sectors. Having the research conducted on Vancouver Island has been a traditional safety feature for the quarantine of plant viruses from imports, as well as during testing for elimination of viruses in other plants. What may have looked like a simple bureaucratic fix (“let’s close the centre on the Saanich Peninsula and consolidate operations in Summerland B.C.”) was made without consultation with the scientists working in either location. It really doesn’t make sense to move plant quarantine facilities from Vancouver Island to the heart of B.C. wine country.

Health and safety of humans and plants are part of the core mandate of the CFIA. Let’s not risk the health of either through too rapid cuts and hasty decisions.

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Originally published in The Hill Times.