Ritz again vows to boost food safety inspections

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is promising major changes following the release of a scathing report into last year’s contaminated beef fiasco at XL Foods.

But critics say they’ve heard that before, and that the federal government still has a long way to go to fulfil the recommendations of an inquiry into a deadly food poisoning outbreak in 2009.

Ritz said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already increased training for inspectors and promised the government will invest nearly $16 million over the next three years to establish inspection verification teams to conduct surprise spot checks.

That sounds much like the promises made following a report by Sheila Weatherill on the 2009 listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods that killed 23 and sickened scores more.

“Four years after the Weatherill report issued recommendations for improving food inspection, we have another report that points out deficiencies in meat inspection,” said NDP Agriculture Critic Malcolm Allen.

The XL Foods report said the E. coli contamination at the Brooks, Alta. plant was completely preventable, and the result of “a weak food safety culture at the plant, shared by both company management and CFIA staff.” It found the company failed to implement its food safety enhancement plan and the CFIA staff were “clearly not monitoring… and identifying deficiencies as carefully as they should have been.” It also faulted the company for poor record-keeping and not having an adequate plan to deal with a contamination outbreak.

Ellen Goddard of the faculty of agriculture, life and environmental science at the University of Alberta said the potential for E. coli problems with cattle are well known.

“Both the company and CFIA let their guard down” when they should have reacted far faster to the first signs of trouble. She said the company has the primary responsibility for food safety. “It has to build a food safety culture. In this case, they may have expected the CFIA to do the food safety job for them.”

Goddard praised the report’s 30 recommendations. “It made really good points about the need for clear communications in this kind of event.”

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