Is hard-nosed science-based? Canadian food safety minister speaks

After 23 people died linked to Maple Leaf cold-cuts in 2008, and 16 now sickened with E. coli O157 linked to the XL plant in Alberta, the person who is still, inexplicitly, the Canadian Minister of Agriculture, responsible for food safety activities, Gerry Ritz, has made his most revealing statement yet:

Government inspectors could have been “more hard-nosed.”

I’m not sure hard-nosed is a science- or evidence-based term that would be valued by a science-based organization like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which reports to Ritz.

Sarah Schmidt reports that while speaking to parliamentarians Ritz said,“Looking back, what would we have done different? I think CFIA would have been a lot harder-nosed on getting the material from XL rather than being nice, and going the format with the letter and so on. You stand banging at the door until you got it. But we weren’t seeing any illness spikes to drive us to decertification. That wasn’t happening,” while characterizing license decertification as a “nuclear strike.”

Compare that with getting E. coli O157.

On Sept. 6, CFIA verbally requested distribution information and testing results for all products produced on Aug. 24 and Aug. 28, the days when the affected products were made. The agency followed up a day later with a written request to provide the documents by Sept. 8.

The documents were provided over a two-day period, Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, and Ritz testified Thursday the company “was not that forthcoming.” And when the records rolled in, there were “boxes of paper work that then had to be analyzed.”

Ritz added: “I don’t think they were intentionally trying to hide anything,” but rather “giving voluminous paperwork to cover off the bases.”

Canadian ag minister speaks about listeria outbreak report, CFIA

The unintentionally funny and still, inexplicably, Minister of Agriculture in Canada, Gerry-death-by-a-1,000-cold-cuts-and-isn’t-my-moustache-awesome Ritz, spoke at a press conference today. has already published some of the Q&A, which I have edited here for brevity:

Q:  Do you now recognize that, that CFIA, both those inspectors were over, do you accept that they were stressed and they were stretched too thin and that, and maybe explain why the audits were conducted?

A:  Well as you know, I’m not involved in the day to day operations, so I can’t speak to the stress of the front line operators. 

Q: We talk a lot about what went wrong, where the failures were, but 22 people died here.  Where’s the accountability?  Has anyone been fired and are you willing to compensate the families that were so aversely affected by this clear failure of our system?

A: Well there was a lawsuit, as you know, and there were compensations paid out through McCain’s.  Other than that, as I said, it’s a very complex issue. 

Q: But Maple Leaf Foods took responsibility.  Why can’t the government take some sort of responsibility?  Clearly, there were breakdowns within the government and that’s acknowledged in this report.

A:  Well our, our responsibility is to move forward with a better, better food safety system and I pledge to the victims and the, you know, their families and friends that we will move forward.  That’s my responsibility, I accept it.

Q: So there’s no compensation to them?

A: No.

Q: There won’t be any?

Moderator: Okay, that was our last question.  Thank you Minister.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail of Listeria

As part of her cultural education, about-to-be graduate student Katie has been exposed –inundated – with some of the favorite movies of Doug and Amy.

Last week it was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Young Katie wasn’t too impressed, and I’ll admit, the film has aged.

But certain bits still come readily to mind. When Amy asks me to clean up the yard and landscape, I think of the Knights Who Say Nee and ask for shrubberies from Roger the Shrubber. When Amy and her colleagues speak French, I want to taunt them John Cleese-style, such as, “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries.”

So when Canadian Agriculture Minister and would-be standup comedian, Gerry Ritz, told special parliamentary hearings tonight that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has "suffered a black eye" over last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak and that it was time to "get past the politics of this issue and move forward," I couldn’t help but think of the scene from the Holy Grail after Lancelot has killed and maimed many of the wedding party celebrating the union of Prince Herbert and the huge tracks of land owned by Princess Lucky. Prince Herbert’s father, eager for land and not a swamp, says to the dead and wounded,

"What’s the point of bickering and arguing about who killed who, it’s time to move forward.”

The layers of the listeria onion are slowing peeling away, and if a few key reporters can keep their jobs before being swallowed by the Intertubes, Canadians may eventually find out who knew what when and why in the listeria shitfest of 2008.

Sarah Schmidt of Canwest reports tonight that CFIA is permitting food companies to use non-accredited laboratories to analyze some listeria tests after the industry shot down a pricey proposal tabled after last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak requiring the use of accredited labs, according to newly released ministerial briefing notes. …

At the time of the listeriosis outbreak, such companies as Maple Leaf Foods were not required to conduct environmental listeria tests throughout their meat plants, including food-contact surfaces.

And if companies were analyzing these tests at in-house labs, CFIA inspectors were not required to review them.

Play cold-cut cannon and shoot down stupid listeria statements

CanWest is reporting that a new website that allows people to shoot down pictures of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz with a cannon firing cold cuts has surfaced on the Internet, as calls for his resignation continue to grow over jokes he made during the deadly listeriosis outbreak.

Set against a backdrop of Parliament Hill, the satirical website – – invites participants to "fire salami slices from your cold cut cannon over the skies of Parliament to defend the honour of Canada and the sensibilities of your fellow citizens!"

Death by cold-cuts? Canadian Ag Minister not as funny as he thinks he is

Michael McCain, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods made a strategic decision once his company decided to handle the growing listeria mess in Canada by saying this wasn’t about government, it was about his company: he effectively cut himself loose from bizarre to self-congratulatory to purely political messages from government and bureaucrats.

That decision looks real smart tonight. is reporting that during a conference call with scientists, bureaucrats and political staff on Aug. 30, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said, after fretting about the political dangers of the Listeria scare, he quipped:

"This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

Then when told of a death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said, "Please tell me it’s (Liberal MP) Wayne Easter."

Easter is the Liberal agriculture critic and has called for Ritz’s resignation over his handling of the outbreak, which was linked to a Maple Leaf Foods meat processing plant north of Toronto.

Kory Teneycke, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office, said Ritz expressed regret over his remarks to Stephen Harper but there was no suggestion of resigning.

Ritz said,

"My comments were tasteless and completely inappropriate. I apologize unreservedly."

Canoe news reports that Ritz was "less contrite when he was asked about his comments after his flight from Saskatoon touched down at the Ottawa airport Wednesday afternoon".

A bearded man with Ritz jostled with journalists as the agriculture minister beelined through the terminal to a waiting sedan. At one point the man grabbed a reporter’s recorder and jabbed at the off button.

For two minutes Ritz stared dead ahead as he was peppered with questions about the conference call. His only words were clipped.

"Not right now, guys," he said.

Then: "Get out of my face, please."