OTTAWA - The Conservative government is refuting opposition claims that Canada has a "two-tiered" food inspection system that puts the quality of beef exports ahead of meat consumed at home.
A memo from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to its employees at the XL Foods processing plant in Brooks, Alta., instructed some inspectors to ignore contamination on cattle carcasses unless they were destined for Japan.
The agency responded Thursday by saying the same safety standards apply to meat for domestic consumption and for overseas exports, and reports to the contrary are "categorically false."
"As the CFIA has confirmed, the meat sold in Canada is just as safe as meat exported to other countries," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons.
"There are strict food safety standards in this country. That is the law."
XL Foods became the epicentre of one of the largest beef recalls in Canadian history earlier this year after meat contaminated with E. coli was stopped at the Canada-U.S. border in September.
People in at least four provinces were found to have been made ill by the E. coli strain; it wasn't until October that the XL plant was allowed to resume production.
Agency officials said Thursday they recommended last week to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that XL Foods be relisted, and provided the USDA with an "in-depth assessment" of the plant in an effort to reopen the American market to XL products.
Reports on the CFIA inspection memo won't help.
The issue dominated the opening salvos of question period Thursday, with the NDP's Nycole Turmel asking provocatively, "What rate of fecal contamination are the Conservatives prepared to accept?"
Turmel demanded to know whether Harper would "apologize for having given the priority to export markets to the detriment of Canadians' health."
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz called the allegations "absolutely unfounded and untrue."
As is often the case, reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric.
The XL plant does indeed have a Japan-specific inspection station, Paul Mayers, the CFIA's vice-president of programs, explained in a conference call.
Japan only allows the import of beef from cattle younger than 20 months.
Those export carcasses for Japan must be free of elements such as spinal columns, fecal and intestinal materials — conditions that also apply to all Canada's domestic and export beef.
"Japan ... requires that a specific station be present on the line in order to confirm those conditions," said Mayers.
"Is it necessary in the context of market access? Yes. Is it a requirement from a food safety perspective? No, because that assurance is provided already in terms of the system."
And that's where the real debate begins.
Malcolm Allen, the NDP agriculture critic, said the Japan station is the last point of inspection.
"In that slaughterhouse there is one station left before it exits the plant and it's a shower. It gets showered," fumed the MP.
"The shower will not wash off fecal material. In fact, we have it on authority from one of the chief veterinarians that it actually may just spread it around the meat, in which case the carcass would be even more contaminated than if you just simply cut it off."
Doug O'Halloran, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, framed the CFIA's explanation this way: "If it's the same standard, it's not a good standard."
A CFIA memo to inspectors, dated September 2008 and repeated yearly since, instructed them to ensure "100 per cent verification" that all Japan-eligible beef was free from contaminants.
As for non-Japanese-eligible carcasses older than 20 months, the memo stated, "ignore them."
A new memo, issued in mid-November after the matter was brought to the CFIA's attention by the XL plant's union, makes clear that the station should focus only on Japan-eligible beef, while offering more specific instructions on dealing with other problems.
Both the old memo and the new one end with the line: "Your first action should be to have the issue dealt with without (production) line stoppage."
O'Halloran, who worked at XL in the 1980s and lauds the plant's new ownership, JBS USA, said in an interview the CFIA system doesn't work.
"They can have all the bells and whistles they want, and hope it gets caught, but why would you not deal with it when you see it?" he asked.
"Let's look the other way on this contamination, somebody will catch it down the line."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae also zeroed in on the CFIA's apparent focus on keeping the production running.
"That is a message that clearly states that the production line is more important than health and safety," Rae said outside the Commons.
"And I don't think that's a message that any inspection agency should be sending to any of its inspectors."
Rae joined calls for an independent inquiry of the CFIA, noting the recall earlier this year began with inspections by Americans at the border.
"So I think there is an issue of a dual standard and double standard here and the fact that we need to deal with it," he said.
"And if in fact there is no problem, then (the CFIA) should survive an independent review."