McCain takes aim at listeria oversight

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Inspectors' union disagrees with CEO's view that paperwork trumps visual quality control procedures

OTTAWA -- Paperwork is more important than visual inspections when it comes to preventing future listeria outbreaks at meat-processing plants, the head of Maple Leaf Foods told a parliamentary committee yesterday.

Maple Leaf president Michael McCain said it is only through paperwork - reviewing results of swab tests from areas like meat slicers and counters - that inspectors can spot trends and isolate contaminated equipment.

"You cannot see bacteria, so visual inspection has limited value," Mr. McCain told MPs yesterday afternoon as he appeared before a House of Commons subcommittee examining the recent outbreak and food safety generally.

The union representing federal food inspectors has been expressing concern with a trend they say has largely taken them off the factory floor and into back offices, poring over binders of test results compiled by industry. The union says the paperwork is so onerous that inspectors rarely have the time to inspect the processing firsthand.

Earlier yesterday, following a luncheon speech to the Canadian Club, Mr. McCain emphasized the importance of that work.

"The only way you can determine whether or not a process is food safe is by looking at data," he told reporters. "You can only look at test results one, two, three, four days later. So you can describe that however you want. You can describe that as shuffling paper, but that's the reality of modern food safety science, and nobody's going to change that and make that bacteria more visible tomorrow than it is today."

Top officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which led Ottawa's response to last year's tainted meat outbreak that left 22 people dead, also appeared before MPs. They supported Mr. McCain's view that traditional inspections based on walking around a plant are not an effective way to find listeria and added that, in any case, their inspectors still spent half their time on the factory floor. One of the four officials, chief veterinary officer Brian Evans, said the government's role is to set rules and ensure they are followed by industry.

"This is not privatization," Dr. Evans said. "There has not, is not, and will not be any diminished role or investment by the government through the mandatory use of [agency policy]."

The Agriculture Union representing food inspectors released a statement yesterday describing Maple Leaf's position as an attempt to retain "self-inspection" of its facilities. Union president Bob Kingston said that while inspectors can't see bacteria, they may be able to spot workers engaging in practices that compromise food safety.

"Relying heavily on documents tells you only that a company knows how to complete paperwork," Mr. Kingston said.

However, the union said it agreed with Mr. McCain on the need for more stringent regulations and new rules that would require all meat plants to comply with federal rules. Currently, there are a number of smaller facilities that are only under provincial jurisdiction, although these firms produce only a small fraction of the meat consumed in Canada.

NDP MP Malcolm Allen raised the issue of industry's role in testing with Mr. McCain in committee, asking whether public trust in food safety would be improved if government inspectors did all the work. "A company has an intrinsic value in saying 'We're the best,' " Mr. Allen said. "The only way you can get trust back with the public is through third-party verification."

Mr. McCain replied that both government and industry must share the responsibility for food safety.



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