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Commons ag committee to run own listeria probe

The House of Commons’ standing committee on agriculture and agri-food plans to conduct its own parallel investigation of last summer’s outbreak of listeriosis linked to a Toronto deli meat plant.

The committee’s announcement Friday follows Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment last month of Sheila Weatherill, the former CEO of Edmonton’s Capital Health, as the head of the federal government’s own inquiry into the food safety scare.

But one of the committee members, the opposition Liberals’ ag critic Wayne Easter, said in a release Friday that the government “failed the most fundamental test of transparency in this crisis by choosing to appoint an investigator with no power to compel testimony or hold hearings.”

Weatherill, he said, needs only to provide (federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz) with a report that he is under no obligation to release.”

The listeriosis outbreak that began last August involved a specific listeria strain in prepared meats that sickened 56 people in seven provinces, mostly in Ontario, and was tracked to a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant.

Among those 56 cases, as of Dec. 10, 2008, the listeria strain in question has been ruled to be the “underlying or contributing cause” in the deaths of 20 people.

Maple Leaf responded by launching a major and well-publicized product recall that crossed over into other food brands using product from the facility. The Toronto plant, which was shut down Aug. 20, is now in limited production. And the incubation period for the illness has passed, with no new cases of listeriosis linked to the deli meat-related outbreak in at least three months.

The Harper government’s probe is meant to “make recommendations, based on lessons learned from that event and from other countries in terms of best practices, as to what can be done to enhance both the prevention of a similar outbreak occurrence in the future and the removal of contaminated products from the food supply.”

The terms of reference for Weatherill’s investigation also require her not to draw any conclusion or recommendation regarding the “civil or criminal liability of any person or organization” related to the outbreak.

“Under the broadened mandate of food safety, a subcommittee of the agriculture committee will have all the powers of a parliamentary committee to conduct public hearings and allow witnesses to testify so that we can reach a full understanding of what happened in this crisis,” Easter said Friday.

“Canadians have every right to a full understanding of how their government responded to one of the most serious public health issues recently faced in this country,” he said.

Easter, a Prince Edward Island MP, said the committee last Thursday “heeded calls by opposition members and voted unanimously in favour of a parliamentary investigation into the listeriosis issue.”

The committee’s current membership includes six Conservative government MPs, three Liberals, two Bloc Quebecois members and one NDP MP.

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