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Independent look at XL needed

Four years ago, the Harper government was mired in the Maple Leaf listeria crisis and sought to reassure voters in the upcoming federal election by appointing an independent inquiry into the deadly event.

While the XL Foods E. coli incident has produced only four confirmed cases of illness compared to the 22 deaths and scores more seriously sickened in the listeria outbreak, the scope of the XL recall of beef products dwarfs the Maple Leaf one and has yet to run its course.

The Harper government has been under intense pressure in Parliament and the media over the matter. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has visited the Brooks, Alta. plant and held news conferences to try to convince a doubting public that all unsafe product has been removed from the market.

XL waited several weeks before commenting, but it has finally accepted responsibility for the outbreak. It pledged “intensified and enhanced testing,” to regain the trust of Canadians. “We believed XL Foods was a leader in the beef-processing industry with our food safety protocols, but we have now learned it was not enough,” a company statement says.

“We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces and are doing everything we can to take the lead in an enhanced comprehensive food safety program for our plant.”

While XL Foods said it has “targeted prevention, process verification and correction, response and product control as areas where food safety enhancements are required,” these are all areas where it should have had controls in place.

And CFIA inspectors should have been checking those systems were working, says food industry experts. They still want an explanation of why it took two weeks from the time CFIA officials as well as American border inspectors found E. coli in ground meat from the plant before the public was alerted.

It remains a puzzle how E. coli, a well-known bacteria carried by cattle, overwhelmed the plant’s existing food safety system, which it is required to have in place as part of its licence to operate and export product to other provinces and countries.

While the Thanksgiving week parliamentary break will give the government a reprieve from public criticism, it will soon introduce legislation called the Safe Foods for Canadians Act in the Commons. It has almost finished scrutiny by the Senate. It will make sweeping changes to the CFIA’s inspection activities that most people in the food business support.

The debate over the legislation in the Commons plus hearings on the bill will provide plenty of opportunities for the opposition and critics to hammer the government over its handling of the XL situation.

A clear picture of what happened at the plant probably won’t emerge until CFIA completes and releases its lessons learned report on the incident. It did that after the Maple Leaf outbreak and other serious food safety incidents.

The level of attention focused on this incident likely won’t go away soon unless the government sets up some form of independent investigation.

Whether the government wants outside advice is in question. It rejected a proposal from Liberal Senator Bob Peterson to have the auditor general review CFIA’s inspection capacity and capabilities every five years.

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