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The Globe and Mail

When it comes to food safety, why is Ottawa letting us fend for ourselves?

If you plan on eating a steak, make sure it is cooked at least to medium. No medium rare, no rare, and certainly no beef tartare.

That's the advice in a Health Canada press release entitled "Information for Canadians on cooking mechanically tenderized beef," the latest lame response to the tonnes of potentially tainted beef that has been processed and shipped to Canadian stores by XL Foods. To date, more than 2,000 products have been recalled.

E.coli has sickened 16 people and, thankfully, there have been no deaths.

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It's not the most lethal public-health problem we have ever had in this country, but the response has to rank among the most ridiculous.

Canadians eat, on average, 22 kilograms of beef annually. We should take an individual and collective interest in beef, and in food safety more generally.

The response to tainted beef from officialdom has largely been buffoonery: The Agri-Business Minister chowing down on beef at a Rotary luncheon at the height of the crisis; the Alberta Premier saying her 10-year-old daughter has eaten beef every day since the recall; the Wildrose Leader saying the suspect meat should be used to feed the poor and so on.

The clear message behind these "don't worry, be happy" displays is that the interests of business matter more than the health of consumers. Sadly, the anti-consumer bias is built into our government structure.

We have a federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Business, and Gerry Ritz has played the industry-booster role well, repeatedly expressing his concern for XL Foods, the cattle industry and the economy of Brooks, Alta. But he has been all but silent on those who have been sickened and on the safety of consumers more generally.

What we don't have is a minister of food to give voice to the millions who actually eat food and a Canadian Food Inspection Agency not under the ministerial thumb and whose overriding priority is ensuring safe and pathogen-free food on our dinner tables.

Our political leaders – federal and provincial – behave as if food safety is solely the responsibility of individual consumers, and it is troubling that they are using public agencies to deliver this wrong-headed message.

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The press release from Health Canada is a prime example. It is the first acknowledgment, however back-handed, that the source of the problem at XL Foods was meat tenderizers, machines that pound the crap out of beef to make it more tender. Normally, pathogens such as E.coli would remain on the meat's surface and be killed by cooking, even if you like your steak rare. But tenderizing also pounds the crap (literally) into the meat.

Pushing pathogens further into the meat makes it harder to kill the bacteria through cooking and, harder to test for it on the meatpacking factory floor.

The appropriate public policy response to this problem should be to crack down on tenderizing – get rid of it as an industrial process, step up inspections at plants that use this machinery, and penalize producers whose products poison consumers.

Instead, we see the burden shifted to consumers. Of course, we should all practise safe food handling, but that should be in addition to inspection and testing at the source, not instead of it.

It is all well and good to suggest that extra precautions are required when dealing with mechanically tenderized beef, but there is no way for consumers to identify these products, such as mandatory labelling.

There needs to be some modicum of public-health standards for food, especially since, when you manufacture food on a large scale, if things go wrong, they tend to do so on a large scale.

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Consumers should not be responsible for cooking their meat to death to kill E.coli any more than they should be responsible for pasteurizing their own milk or boiling their tap water before drinking it.

Opposing excessive regulation is a legitimate political position. But the public should expect more from a government than a "beef good, regulation bad" party line.

Food-safety regulations should be designed and enforced to protect the public, not industry. The folks at Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should be allowed to do their jobs, unfettered. They should not be reduced to issuing asinine press releases to mollify the powers that be.

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