U.S. Congressional questions better than Canadian food safety silence

Elizabeth Payne, of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, writes that when the president of Peanut Corp. of America was hauled in front of a congressional hearing in Washington last week, Canadians should have been paying attention.

And cringing.

Few things have underlined the gap in the way our two countries approach food safety like the sight of company president Stewart Parnell sitting with arms folded while a congressman, in a theatrical flourish, offered him some of his company’s tainted peanut products. Mr. Parnell’s company is at the centre of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have killed eight in recent months.

On this side of the border, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods was named Business News Maker of the Year — a year in which his company was found to be the source of a listeriosis outbreak linked to 20 deaths and hundreds of illnesses. To be fair, Mr. McCain took responsibility in a way that Peanut Corp. executives did not. He deserved recognition for his compassion and efforts to reassure a rattled public that it was safe to go back to the deli counter.

But that should not be the end of the story. The aggressive effort in the U.S. to quickly get questions answered about the tainted peanut outbreak there is instructive.

Payne goes on to say that already Americans know more about the mechanics and timeline of this salmonella outbreak than Canadians do about the gaps and failures than may have exacerbated the listeriosis outbreak.

Nearly seven months later, Canadians still don’t know exactly who knew what when. There have been no answers to the crucial question of whether a quicker response could have saved lives and how a similar tragedy could be prevented or contained sooner. Until we know that, nothing has been learned from the 20 deaths. Instead of answers, we got a PR campaign, tasteless cold-cut jokes and a toothless and too-late investigation into what happened.