Canada: Report calls for listeria inquiry

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Staff Reporter

Canadians need a full public inquiry into the death of 22 Canadians from last summer's listeria outbreak and increased inspection oversight in meat plants, a parliamentary investigation has concluded.

After two months of hearings, the parliamentary food safety report also found health authorities lost precious time warning the public because they were immersed in confusion and "turf wars."

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who quickly dismissed calls for a public inquiry yesterday, did not respond to an interview request.

Critics agreed with the parliamentary food safety subcommittee that a public inquiry is needed.

"There have always been inquiries when there have been serious crises in public health," said Amir Attaran, professor in the faculty of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa.

"We've had it for tainted blood. We had it for Walkerton. We had it for SARS. We're obviously going to need it for listeriosis. But Parliament so far has not managed to push the Conservatives to do that."

In a dissenting report yesterday, Conservatives on the subcommittee issued their own set of recommendations, none of which mention a public inquiry.

Instead of a public inquiry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last fall an independent investigation led by Sheila Weatherill. Her report is to be completed by next month.

Critics dismiss the $2.7 million investigation for being conducted behind closed doors without the authority to compel testimony or documents.

"Weatherill's investigation is about sweeping it under the rug and not holding anyone responsible," said Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter, a food safety subcommittee member. "Twenty-two people died here. A public inquiry needs to get at the issue of responsibility."

Parliamentarians from all political stripes agreed infighting between health authorities delayed listeria alarm bells.

Although Toronto public health officials first noticed a spike in cases in mid-July of last year, Canadians weren't warned about the risk until mid-August as people began dying.

"The (various health) agencies did not have a consistent approach to public notification," said Toronto medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown. "It wasn't clear that people were being guided by the plans that had been made."

While the report doesn't speculate how much earlier Canadians should have been warned, it suggests health authorities increased the risk to consumers by pointing fingers rather than blowing whistles.

Officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Health said they were reviewing the report and its recommendations.


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