The federal government is rejecting allegations of a “two-tier” meat inspection system after a leaked memo appeared to instruct inspectors to ignore meat hygiene concerns in carcasses not destined for Japan.
The 2008 memo, sent to Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., which has had an E. coli meat contamination problem and triggered the largest beef recalls in Canadian history, dominated Parliament Hill debate yesterday.
CFIA officials and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz insisted critics were misinterpreting the memo, which has since been revised.
It was aimed at a particular point in the XL inspection system dedicated to meat that must meet Japanese age standards, but any problem with meat for the domestic or other markets would be caught elsewhere in the process, they told critics.
“CFIA continues to confirm that meat sold in Canada is just as safe as meat being exported to other markets, including Japan,” Ritz said in the House of Commons yesterday.
“CFIA also continues to ensure that all meat processed in Canada meets Canada’s high food safety standards. That is enforceable by law.”
As critics and food system employee unions suggested a federal coverup, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association quickly defended the Canadian meat inspection system.
“The CCA would like to reassure consumers that all beef processed in Canada meets the CFIA strict food safety standards,” it said in a statement yesterday.
“Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world, and we are confident in the procedures CFIA applies to ensure the safety of beef produced for both the domestic and export markets.”
The uproar developed after a directive sent by CFIA to XL inspectors in 2008 and re-issued several time since was leaked to CTV Television on the eve of an appearance by Ritz and CFIA officials before the House of Commons agriculture committee.
It said making certain that meat destined for the Japanese market meets their standards is the main priority.
“When stationed at this position, ensure that non-eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura mater, OCD defects and minor ingesta (ignore them).”
The memo said problems with non-Japan carcasses would be picked up elsewhere in the inspection process.
NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said during question period yesterday that Ritz should be fired or at least lose his jurisdiction over the CFIA.
Liberal critic Frank Valerie accused the CFIA of “willful blindness” toward food safety issues at the Brooks plant.
CFIA president George Da Pont insisted the memo was sent to an inspector “station” concerned with verifying that cattle destined for Japan were younger than 21 months. It was not a food safety position.