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Timeline set for ag committee’s food safety probe

A subcommittee of the House of Commons’ standing committee on agriculture plans to deliver a report on Canada’s food safety system, with a focus on last August’s listeriosis outbreak, by this summer.

The work schedule for the subcommittee’s study, not to be confused with the government-commissioned Weatherill investigation on the listeriosis outbreak, was agreed upon this week after a week of political jockeying on the issue during subcommittee meetings.

“Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary for the minister of agriculture and agri-food, struck a deal with the opposition members to a new timeframe to complete a food safety report that will be tabled to the standing committee on agriculture and agri-food by summer,” Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson said in a release earlier this week.

“The food safety subcommittee has the potential to provide commonsense recommendations to improve food safety within Canada,” Anderson said Tuesday.

“I feel relieved that the opposition finally decided to stop playing partisan games. Now, we can actually get down to work by hearing food safety experts and writing a report that will benefit all Canadians by improving our food safety system.”

The Commons’ ag committee announced in February that it would conduct its own parallel probe of last summer’s outbreak of listeriosis — an outbreak linked to listeria monocytogenes at Plant 97B, Maple Leaf Foods’ Toronto-area deli meat plant — apart from the Weatherill investigation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in January.

Anderson on March 25 had criticized opposition parties for seeking to “amend the schedule for future meetings in order to stretch it out for the rest of the year.” The opposition, he said, “should stop playing games and let the subcommittee hear witnesses and finish a report by summer.”

The federal Liberals, meanwhile, criticized Anderson for his attempt to “filibuster the food safety committee studying one of the most serious food contamination crises in our history,” according to Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett.

Anderson, she said, had spent two hours filibustering the food safety subcommittee and “obstructed progress” at its meeting. “This is a sad commentary on Parliament. Canadians expect us to put the safety of people before politics,” she said.

The CEO of the company at the centre of the listeriosis outbreak said Wednesday he hopes to appear early in the subcommittee’s hearing process.

“Higher level”

“All of us at Maple Leaf learned a lot through the tragedy of last year’s listeria outbreak,” Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain said Wednesday on the company’s new food safety blog.

“We owe it to the families of those who died and the thousands who were affected to share those lessons in the interests of a higher level of food safety in Canada.”

McCain said he and Randy Huffman, Maple Leaf’s chief food safety officer, would ask to appear early on. “When we appear before the committee, we are going to lay out, chapter and verse, what happened last August,” McCain wrote in the blog.

“We also have a number of suggestions we intend to raise about how the industry overall needs to raise its game going forward as well as about the important role government policy and regulation should play.

“Along with the Weatherill investigation, this Parliamentary process offers an opportunity for Canada to jump to the forefront of food safety and I’m extremely supportive of that.”

Liberal ag critic Wayne Easter last week criticized the government’s handling of the mandate for the Weatherill probe, to be conducted by Sheila Weatherill, the former CEO of Edmonton’s Capital Health.

“By appointing an investigator with no power to compel testimony or to hold hearings and who only needs to report to the minister of agriculture, the Conservatives’ investigation does not provide Canadians with the transparency they deserve,” Easter said in a Liberal release.

Anderson said this week that the Conservative government is “committed to completing a comprehensive study of food safety by the end of June.”

The listeriosis outbreak that began last August involved a specific listeria strain that sickened 57 people in seven provinces, mostly in Ontario

Among those 57 cases, as of March 13, the listeria strain in question has been ruled to be the “underlying or contributing cause” in the deaths of 21 people.

One of those deaths, in Quebec, was added to the list last month but unlike other cases of the same strain in this outbreak, the illness could not be conclusively linked to deli meats from Plant 97B.

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