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Listeria Committee Back In Gear

Government and opposition MPs on a special Commons subcommittee investigating last summer’s listeria outbreak have ironed out their differences and will begin questioning witnesses in late April.

The first meeting of the subcommittee turned into a two-hour quarrel when NDP MP Malcolm Allen proposed an extension of the committee’s investigation to the end of the year rather than reporting before the start of the summer recess in June.

Since that fiasco, Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary for agriculture, worked out a compromise with the opposition parties to increase the number of meetings during the spring, including a report in June.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz as well as officials from Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency will be among the witnesses along with officials from Maple Leaf Foods. It was the company’s deli meat products that contained the listeria that killed 20 and sickened scores more.

The opposition also wants to hear from Sheila Weatherill who was appointed by Prime Minister Harper to conduct a secretive investigation of the listeria outbreak. It could be an interesting session, as Weatherill was told by Harper not to hold public meetings or talk to the news media. However the Conservative MPs on the subcommittee supported calling her.

The four parties have assembled a list of 43 companies and individuals they wish to question. Some of them may have to be in camera, chairman Larry Miller said.

Liberal Farm Critic Wayne Easter said the committee should also plan to visit the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto that manufactured the contaminated product as well as a smaller processing operation, maybe a farm that has a food safety plan in operation and a port where imported products are supposed to be inspected by the CFIA.

Conservative MP Bev Shipley said Ritz’s staff is preparing material for the subcommittee on the minister’s involvement in the federal response to the listeria outbreak. Ritz gained a certain notoriety for his attempt to defuse a tense meeting of government officials by describing the affair as political death by a thousand cold cuts. The comment was leaked by one of the civil servants listening in on a conference call.

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