Conservative Senators have amended new food safety legislation so that the federal agriculture minister makes an assessment every five years of whether Ottawa is spending enough to protect Canadians.
The Conservative majority in the Senate agriculture committee voted Thursday to accept the amendment from Conservative Senator Don Plett. The Conservatives also voted down a Liberal amendment that would have had the review conducted by the auditor general, rather than the minister.
"It is just our belief that we should not mandate the auditor general to do something," said Mr. Plett following the committee meeting, adding that the auditor general's office is free to audit whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
The amendment is to Bill S-11, the "Safe Food for Canadians Act," a government bill that was first introduced in the Senate and will likely be approved there and sent to the House of Commons for review later this month.
Mr. Plett said his decision to move an amendment has nothing to do with the fact that the Conservative government is currently dealing with a massive recall of Alberta beef.
It is possible that the opposition in the House of Commons could make another attempt to amend the bill. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz argued this week that the legislation contains new powers for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that would improve food safety.
Just a few hours after the morning vote in the Senate committee, Liberal interim leader Bob Rae announced that he has sent a letter to Auditor General Michael Ferguson, asking him to conduct "a comprehensive audit of Canada's food safety system, including its policies and resources."
The debate over resource audits flows from a recommendation made in July 2009 by independent investigator Sheila Weatherill, who was asked to examine Canada's food safety system in light of the deadly 2008 Listeriosis outbreak tied to Maple Leaf ready-to-eat meats.
In her report, she said she was unable to determine the current level of resources or the level of resources that would be needed "due to the lack of detailed information and differing views heard."
As a result, her report made the following recommendation: "To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should retain third-party experts to conduct a resources audit."
Mr. Ritz, who is responsible for the CFIA, argues that his government has complied with all 57 recommendations in the Weatherill report.
When asked for the response to the call for a resource audit, which was recommendation number seven, Mr. Ritz's office points to a review conducted in October 2010 .
Yet that government report characterizes Ms. Weatherill's recommendation more narrowly.
"Recommendation 7 of the Weatherill Report calls for a review by third-party experts to accurately determine the number of CFIA inspectors required to deliver the meat inspection system known as the Compliance Verification System," the government report states.
That narrow review of how federal meat inspectors use a new inspection system found the job required 260 full-time inspectors, yet in 2009-10, CFIA was only employing 176 full-time inspectors in that area.
The federal Agriculture Union argues that had Ottawa also reviewed all of its other food inspection lines – as the union believes Ms. Weatherill called for – those reviews would have made similar findings that there are not enough inspectors on hand to do the job properly.
Liberal Senator Robert Peterson, who proposed the defeated motion that the review be conducted by the auditor general, dismissed the government's claims that they have already conducted a resource audit.
"There was no resource audit and that's the sad part," he said. "They keep saying 'We did everything. All 57 recommendations. We did them all.' But it really wasn't. That's why you need to have somebody else [to provide] an oversight to get down, to find out, exactly what the situation is."