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Security personnel patrol the XL Foods cattle processing plant in Brooks, Alta., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. The plant was closed for a month in 2012 after an E. coli outbreak. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Security personnel patrol the XL Foods cattle processing plant in Brooks, Alta., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. The plant was closed for a month in 2012 after an E. coli outbreak. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Globe Editorial: First Take

Ottawa needs to reassure Canadians about food safety Add to ...

The Harper government needs to reassure Canadians that budget cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will not result in an unsafe food supply. There have been recent major incidents of food poisoning, and it is unsettling to think budget cuts could make it worse. Ottawa should explain clearly what is going on.

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We support the Harper government’s plan to eliminate the deficit by 2015. It won’t be done without pain. It must also be said that there is no reason to assume reflexively that cuts to the CFIA will result in fewer inspections or a reduced capacity to enforce existing regulations. Any federal department can find efficiencies without cutting productivity. As well, Canadians are protected by the market: No company that produces unsafe food will be in business for long.

But all that said, the bottom line is that Canadians want and need to live in a regulated environment when it comes to food production, especially in this age of massive-scale factory farming and meat-processing. These days, one packing plant can poison an entire country. Canadians do not want to look at a vacuum-packed steak at a local grocery story and wonder whether it came from a slaughterhouse where the workers were failing to sanitize equipment, there was a buildup of animal blood and fat on stairs, and proper labelling procedures were being ignored – all of which were issues cited in CFIA inspections of the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., in the months leading up to the plant’s closure last year.

Meat from the XL Foods plant – which slaughters 40 per cent of Canada’s cattle – sickened 18 people with E. coli, and thousands were laid off when the CFIA closed the plant down for more than a month. The E. coli outbreak also damaged Canada’s brand as an exporter of safe, high-quality beef.

That single incident exposed problems at the CFIA with regards to its reporting process and training procedures. And now it appears the agency’s budget will be cut 15 per cent over the next two and a half years. Ottawa should explain clearly the steps it is taking to ensure the safety of our food supply in an era of fiscal restraint, and then make sure those steps are taken.

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