© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the October 6, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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Less Government, Safer Meat


The recent listeriosis outbreak has produced a predictable chorus of accusations from big- government fans attempting to pin the blame on the alleged deregulation of Canada’s food safety system.  The website www.safemeat.ca , for example, lists three “facts”:

1.         The Harper government planned to deregulate the food inspection regime and let meat producers “police themselves”.

2.         A civil servant was fired from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) after exposing this plan.

3.         Dozens of Canadians began falling ill and dying from listeriosis-tainted meat.

This is a textbook example of why we require courtroom witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  When you fill in the large swaths of truth omitted by the anonymous Safemeat author, perceptions change markedly.

One important omission is that the civil servant—a union steward with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada—was fired for sending a government document marked “confidential” to his union, contrary to the security clauses of his employment contract.  In its “Statement of Solidarity,” the Public Service Alliance of Canada claims his primary interest was in protecting public health, but also admits that “the potential deregulation of food safety standards would have a huge impact on…workers at CFIA.” 

Indeed.  Had the proposed changes occurred, CFIA safety inspectors might have found themselves doing exactly the same work, but as food company employees rather than government bureaucrats--probably at lower pay.  In fact, it was this offloading of expense from taxpayers that the so-called deregulation proposal was designed to achieve.

But the really important omission is that the proposed “deregulation” never occurred. The plan was put on ice in the kerfuffle over the firing. So the inference that the Safemeat site wants readers to draw—that cuts to the CFIA caused deaths and illnesses—is simply false.  The listeriosis outbreak took place on the CFIA’s watch, proving that regulation is hardly the panacea its proponents would have us believe.

Safemeat’s YouTube video asks how a “money-making industry” can possibly police itself on something as important as food safety.  Others on the web suggest that there is “a conflict of interest between a company’s duty to its shareholders and its responsibility for public health.”

Not in the least.  A company’s duty to make money for its shareholders is precisely the motivation that compels it to ensure product safety.  Killing off customers also kills off sales.  Fewer sales means lower profits. And companies don’t want to spend money defending—especially losing—class action lawsuits brought by injured customers or their bereaved relatives.  Nor do they want to pay skyrocketing liability insurance premiums if their insurers end up covering damage claims.

A food processing company’s safety regimen is not an expense item it has an incentive to skimp on.  The revenue losses resulting from a ruined reputation, and the expenses involved in setting things right after a foulup, will almost certainly outweigh the cost of preventing foulups in the first place.  A company’s obligation to customers and its duty to  shareholders are therefore perfectly consonant with each other.

Companies understand this.  Maple Leaf Foods Inc., the company at the centre of the listeriosis outbreak, already had three tiers of safety measures in place, the lowest being compliance with the government’s regulatory regimen. Above that was the tier called “best industry practices”, and at the top was its own proprietary 40-step program.

There was already a full-time government inspector on site in every Maple Leaf  plant, but the listeriosis outbreak happened anyhow. Would additional government inspectors have prevented the problem?  Probably not.  We now know that the listeria bacteria were eventually found in deep recesses of the slicing machinery not ordinarily  reached even by rigorous ordinary cleaning. The machines had to be disassembled and deep-sanitized to effectively eradicate the germ. Until the outbreak happened, nobody knew this was necessary. It apparently wasn’t on the CFIA’s checklist of requirements.  Maple Leaf and its competitors will undoubtedly require this from now on, regardless of what the CFIA does. 

My hunch is that in many instances, safety regulations are actually counterproductive, impeding the effectiveness of industry’s own measures.  They may have been written by someone less knowledgeable or experienced than those he regulates.  New technologies may have rendered old regulations obsolete. Or the paperwork burden may simply sap resources that could be deployed more productively.  Employees on the plant floor probably know of many such instances, but they have no voice.  I’d be glad to hear from them.  kas@karenselick.com


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       November 16, 2008