Not all budget cuts are created equal

The E. coli outbreak that forced the closure of the XL Foods meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta was the subject of an emergency debate in the House of Commons this week. The outbreak represents the single biggest food recall in Canadian history and highlights the gap between the Conservative’s ideologically driven agenda and sound public administration.  It shows that the best way to protect consumers and business is with robust public safety regulations that are enforceable and also enforced.

In the case XL Foods, the government is claiming they have done everything right.  The problem is that doing everything right resulted in Canadian contamination being discovered by American inspectors instead of at the source.  This is taking place in the shadow of a federal budget that cut all department budgets indiscriminately including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The budget cuts were an exercise in the Conservative belief that the government is too big; that fat could be trimmed everywhere with little or no consequence.  The XL Foods plant closure is proof that there are places where a robust government presence may be money well spent.  The listeriosis outbreak in 2008 which cost 22 Canadians their lives appears to have left no lasting impression on this government who have only increased the deregulation of food safety on their watch.

What we are hearing from CFIA officials is that ‘safety valves’ meant to protect our food supply were routinely ignored.  They say the measures are difficult to enforce in a system that increasingly relies on companies to police themselves.  This is only confirmed by the fact that XL foods were too slow to alert officials about contaminated meat.

The head of the union that represents meat inspectors is calling for a government inquiry into events that led to the E. coli crisis.  It would probably be in the long term interest of the meat packing industry to get on board.  Surely the prospects of an export industry are better served if it engages in a public exercise aimed at guaranteeing a safer product.  One would think that this is becoming a matter of the Canadian meat industry’s reputation.

The government claims to have increased food security, but the outcome has not been one that speaks to improved results.  Worse, the problem will remind Ontarians of the way that E. coli contamination in Walkerton’s municipal water supply was directly linked to provincial cutbacks that were also designed as a fat-trimming exercise.    This is a problem that will not be solved by talking points and the sooner the government realizes that, the better.  Canadians do not deserve to shop for food in a cloud of uncertainty no more than producers need to see their reputation diminished by a system that serves ideology over fact.