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Listeriosis Claims 22

From August 26, 2008

In 2008, at least 22 Canadians died and 35 more became ill due to listeriosis food poisoning. The bacterial infection was spread in contaminated deli meat produced by a Maple Leaf Foods facility in North York, Ontario.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was once fully responsible for the safety testing of food products. But according to the account of an agency whistleblower, Luc Pomerleau, the Conservative government proposed a cost cutting measure that would fundamentally change food inspection procedure. The majority of the testing would be placed in the hands of the industry while the CFIA inspectors would be relegated chiefly to an oversight role. But the proposed changes were already in effect at the North York facility - it was one of the first processing plants chosen to test and assess the Conservatives new inspection plan.

By any accounting, the plan has been a failure.

Bob Kingston, former CFIA inspector and president of the Agriculture Union of Canada, was critical of the changes brought in by Gerry Ritz and the Agriculture Ministry. "We don't swab for listeria any more. The industry does all that themselves," he said. "They just document all this stuff. We read their reports. If their reports say they do everything fine, then they do everything fine."

The Harper government was convinced. Before the listeriosis outbreak was recognized, Conservative officials were more focused on punishing the whistleblower than on reviewing the concerns he had made public. Pomerleau was fired. Not entirely a surprise - in Harper's playbook, retaliation is always the first response to criticism. Introspection, re-evaluation, accountability: all dirty words.

Truly, a dangerous policy.