Four years after the Conservative government was hit by a deadly outbreak of tainted meat, it has yet to produce a widely accepted assessment of whether Ottawa has enough inspectors to keep Canadian food safe.
The need for such an analysis was one of the main recommendations of Sheila Weatherill, who investigated the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that left 23 Canadians dead.
Ms. Weatherill's independent report to the government concluded she was unable to determine whether Ottawa was spending enough on food inspection because of a lack of information and "differing views."
That confusion continues to this day, as the Conservative government boasts of having hired 170 new meat inspectors since 2006, while the head of the inspectors' union says he doesn't know "where the hell they are."
Now under pressure over a new outbreak in Alberta, the Conservative government is moving to answer criticism that it isn't being transparent on food safety in an era of federal budget cuts.
The government plans to amend its own food safety legislation this week so that Ottawa commits to "an assessment of the resources" allocated to food safety once every five years.
The amendment is to a government bill introduced in the Senate just before Parliament's summer recess that has so far received little public attention. Bill S-11, the "Safe Food for Canadians Act," amounts to a major overhaul of the laws governing the safety of Canada's food system.
It repeals the Fish Inspection Act, the Meat Inspection Act and the Canada Agricultural Products Act, merging those duties into a single law that covers the broad category of "food." It dramatically increases the maximum fine for offences, from $250,000 to $5-million.
Conservative Senator Don Plett, who is putting forward the amendment on the government's behalf for a vote as early as Thursday, says the timing has nothing to do with the current E. coli-related recalls in Alberta.
"We believe that there are [enough inspectors]," he said. "But clearly as a result of concerns by – whether it's the opposition party or whether it's some people in the industry believing that this might have to be studied – we said, 'Well, why don't we do a review of it every five years?'"
The bill has been widely praised by industry representatives, some of whom have told senators that it will help reduce delays at the border. It is also supported in principle by Liberal senators and the federal food inspectors union.
Liberal Senator Robert Peterson says he will propose an amendment of his own that would have the Auditor-General – rather than the agriculture minister – conduct the review of whether or not Ottawa is spending enough on food inspection. He said he's concerned by recent cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is facing budget reductions of $56.1-million a year.
"Quit advertising the 1812 war and give the money to the CFIA," he said. "To me, it just doesn't seem right. We're talking food safety here and the lives of Canadians. There's a limit to where you do cuts ... That's not the place to do it."
Bob Kingston, the national president of the Agriculture Union representing federal food inspectors, says he supports the bill overall and is glad to see there's movement on the need for an assessment of resources.
He notes that such a report was done on the adequacy of ready-to-eat meat inspection after the listeria outbreak tied to Maple Leaf Foods. Mr. Kingston said that led CFIA to boost the number of inspectors in that area, yet similar reviews have not been done in remaining areas like fish, produce and beef inspection, including the inspection roles at the heart of the Alberta E. coli cases.
"CFIA keeps thinking 'Let's give this back to industry and let them be responsible,'" said Mr. Kingston, who will testify on the topic Tueday before the Senate agriculture and forestry committee. "Well how many times does that have to go off the rails before they get the message that that might not be the best idea?"