Promised listeriosis probe still lacks investigator

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Report on outbreak that killed 20 due in less than 3 months

Last Updated: Thursday, January 8, 2009 | 9:10 PM ET

The Canadian Press

The Harper government has not yet named the leader of a promised probe into the listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 people a lag critics say discredits an already suspect process.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an arm's-length investigation last September, four days before forcing an early federal election. But he stopped short of calling for a full judicial inquiry as the death toll climbed from the listeriosis outbreak linked to Maple Leaf Foods.

The outbreak came as the government was preparing to hand the industry more responsibility for meat inspection.

Harper promised "an arm's-length investigation to make sure we get to the bottom, on the government side, on the bureaucratic side, of exactly what transpired and to make sure as we go forward and we make changes to our system that this kind of thing can't happen again."

An independent report was to be finished by March 15.

With less than three months to go, a senior government source confirmed there's still no lead investigator.

The delay raises fresh concerns among food-safety watchers, who doubt Conservative commitment to overhaul what they say is a chronically short-staffed inspection system.

Twenty people died from a listeria strain linked to Maple Leaf Foods products. The listeria bacterium that can taint some foods causes listeriosis a potentially grave threat to the elderly, pregnant women and those with fragile immune systems.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's office deferred questions about the delay to the Prime Minister's Office.

"An announcement will be made in due course," said spokesman Dimitri Soudas.

Maple Leaf Foods apologized for the fatal outbreak traced to equipment in a Toronto processing plant. The company agreed last month to pay up to $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits.

Announcement an election 'political ploy': union president

Critics assailed Harper's six-month investigation timeline as a rushed job that was more about dodging tough questions on federally supervised food inspection.

"We said at the time it looked like a political ploy just to take it off the agenda during the election," said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents food inspectors through the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"I still think that's the case, but I would have expected them to attempt to try something. To have absolutely no action it's a little bit surprising."

Kingston said changes proposed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency include more stringent oversight, more reporting and more rigorous testing.

"They sort of put all the right pieces in place except for one thing: they haven't been given any resources to do it. With all the government's talk about how well resourced the agency was, and how they were going to make sure that whatever needed to be done was done, they haven't come up with a single penny yet."

No comment from the food inspection agency was immediately available.

The union is calling for the addition of 1,000 inspectors and veterinarians across the entire food-safety system. At least 200 more are needed for processed-meat inspection alone, Kingston said.

"If you talk to the average inspector out there, they figure they've probably got about twice as many plants as they feel comfortable with."

Probe intended to be a 'whitewash': critic

The inspector responsible for the Toronto region where the listeriosis outbreak originated "had the Maple Leaf plant plus six others one of which alone kept him busy for several hours a day," Kingston said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued 24 health hazard alerts between September and December warning of the potential presence of the bacteria that cause listeriosis. Affected products ranged from sausage and luncheon meat to sliced mushrooms, prepared sandwiches and soft cheeses distributed by several different companies.

An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal charged last October that "government policy errors helped bring about" the listeria problem at Maple Leaf Foods.

Changes to government monitoring mean Canada now has some of the lowest listeria standards among developed countries, it said. It demanded a full public inquiry into Canada's food inspection system.

"It's absolutely clear that this so-called investigation is intended to be a whitewash," said editorial co-signer Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa researcher who is a lawyer and biologist by training.

"With Walkerton we had an inquiry," he said of the E. coli-tainted water tragedy in southern Ontario that killed at least seven people and sickened 5,000. "With tainted blood, we had an inquiry.

"With listeria, which killed a few-fold more people than Walkerton, we don't have one. It's no exaggeration to say that the Harper government has done less than any government in recent Canadian history to seek to understand what went wrong when Canadian citizens died. And it has sought to do less just because it knows it's culpable.

"This government is not willing to swallow its medicine. That's the difference."



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