Libby urges the government to improve food safety measures


House of Commons


October 18, 2012

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):  

It is very rare in the House that we would debate a motion all day that, in effect, calls for the resignation of a minister. However, that is exactly what we are doing. We are doing that because we are faced with an incredibly serious issue in the country around food safety and the lack of accountability at the ministerial level, which is a fundamental tenet of our parliamentary system.

The motion before us calls on the House to restore Canadians’ confidence in Canada’s food safety system by removing the current minister from office, by reversing budget cuts, halting the deregulation of Canada’s food safety system and directing the Auditor General to conduct an immediate assessment of food safety procedures and report to the agriculture committee. That is the motion that the NDP has brought before the House. It has been a very thorough debate today on an incredibly serious matter.

We need to look at the context of what is going on. This is the largest food recall in Canadian history. That, in and of itself, should ring a whole bunch of alarm bells about what is going on. We now have, I believe, 15 cases of E. coli that have been specifically traced to the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has now recalled more than 1,800 beef products due to possible contamination.

This issue is extensive. The recall extends to every province and territory, 40 states in the U.S. and 20 other countries. It is something of incredible magnitude and yet the minister rushed out the door too soon saying that the problem had been resolved , that there really was not a problem and that action was being taken. However, we know that the seriousness of what has taken place is still unfolding as more information finally gets into the public realm.

One of the key questions in this tragic situation that has unfolded in the lack of safety in our food system is the fact that, on September 13, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency yanked XL Foods’ exporter licence at the request of U.S. officials. Even though the Minister of Agriculture and his department determined that the meat was not safe enough to be sold to American consumers, they did not pull XL Foods’ Canadian licence for another 14 days.

From the very beginning, we have asked the minister why it took two weeks from the initial action that took place in terms of the American market and a willingness to protect American families from possible contaminated products to take the same action here in Canada. We still have not received an answer. To me, that is a very significant issue that strikes right at the heart of ministerial responsibility, which is why the motion is here before us today.

It is incumbent upon us as parliamentarians to look at this issue in a holistic and systemic way as to what is going on. The XL Foods plant is, I believe, the third largest in Canada. It processes, some people say, up to 5,000 cows a day. It is a major operation, employing thousands of workers. However, we need to look at what is going on underneath and whether we are also dealing with a systemic failure of our food safety system.

For all of us in the NDP, by bringing forward the motion today, we are alerting the Canadian public that this is more than just one plant, that this is about the overall system. It is about a lack of proper inspection and regulation and the failure of a self-policing system that is now thrown into question as a result of what happened.

I have not been to this plant, which I imagine most of us have not and therefore have no direct experience, but everything I have read, like many other Canadians, causes me to be very disturbed and alarmed.

I recently read an article in The Globe and Mail and I will quote from it because it gave me some glimmer of understanding of what these megaplants, these megaoperations, are all about. The headline read, “Can meat factories be safe, at 4,000 cows a day, 3,000 steaks a minute?”. The article reads:


    You have 35 seconds: Gut the cow without damaging its organs, and be sure not to drop the stomach on the floor. Do not cut yourself with the swift-moving blade; do not touch the scalding sanitary surfaces. Then, walk in hot water to clean your white rubber boots. Swap your knife out and start over again. Again and again.


    This is life on the production line at the Lakeside slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., one of the three largest such facilities in Canada that, together, dominate the market. Owned by XL Foods, Lakeside slaughters 4,000 cows on a full day, cutting them into about two million pounds of beef. That’s the equivalent of 3,000 steaks a minute. Plants like this are the reality of modern mass food production….


The article goes on much longer but I do not have time to go into other issues that it brings forward. However, when I read that article and when I see films, like Food, Inc., for example, that tell us about the food production industry and how it is now controlled by massive corporations and how its operation is so concentrated in these mega slaughterhouse plants, it does raise incredibly serious questions about the safety of our food and food security. It raises questions about inspection, how it is done and what kind of oversight there is.

I hate to say it but the situation in Brooks, Alberta, at the XL Foods site has brought this now to the front of public attention, which is actually a good thing. If anything that has happened has been positive, it is that it has alerted a public consciousness about the seriousness of the situation that we face.

I am sure we have all had many emails from people expressing their concern about the situation at XL Foods and wondering what the heck Parliament will do about it. I had one email from someone who pointed out to me that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was originally part of the Department of National Health and Welfare, not the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

When the change was made and it was moved over to agriculture, there were many criticisms that the Department of Agriculture would have an inherent conflict of interest in administrating the CFIA. The question that still remains today is how a department, whose primary role is to promote and develop agriculture and agri-business, also serve and safeguard the health and well-being of consumers. I do not think that question has been answered either in the days that we have now spent on this issue in the House of Commons. That is also very much a part of the question that we are examining here.

I would also like to draw attention to the situation of the workers at the XL Foods plant. We know there are close to 3,000 workers. We also know that the UFCW, their union local 401, has clearly come out and expressed the concerns of the workers themselves that the speed lines are way too fast, that there is sewage backup, dirty washrooms, inconsistent temperatures, a lack of proper training and the list goes on and on. I feel very badly for these workers who have now been laid off. Some of them are having problems with EI. Working in a plant like this, where high-speed production, as we heard, 35 seconds again and again, places stress on workers, particularly if the rules and the procedures are not being followed. This is something that is very serious.

For example, we know that the workers are trained and want to sterilize knives between cuts but they are discouraged from doing so because it would mean falling behind their very stressful schedule of 35 seconds.

We can see again another dramatic consequence of what is going on with the food safety system.

This motion today is very important. It is about ministerial responsibility. It is about good public policy and ensuring that our food system is safe in Canada. I hope members will support this motion.