Thursday, October 4, 2012

Massive meat recall: Harper’s Walkerton moment

The XL Foods plant affair has the potential to do to Stephen Harper what the Walkerton water scandal did to Ontario’s Mike Harris 12 years ago

Canada’s tainted meat scandal is growing. For beef eaters across the country, this is a serious health worry. For Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, it is a defining moment.

The bad meat affair began last month as a local Alberta story. It has now sparked the biggest food recall in Canadian history — one that involves all 10 provinces and 40 U.S. states.

So far, no deaths have been linked to the discovery of deadly E. coli bacteria in meat processed by the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

But politically this affair has the potential to do to Stephen Harper what the Walkerton water scandal — and the same virulent E. coli strain — did to Ontario’s Mike Harris 12 years ago.

Like the XL affair, Walkerton had its roots in deregulation. Harris’ Conservative government came to power in Ontario promising to cut what it called red tape. 

A judicial inquiry later concluded that his casual approach to regulation set the table for actions that eventually resulted in seven people dying after drinking tap water contaminated with cow dung.

Indeed, federal efforts to eliminate so-called red tape not only mirror those of Harris but are championed by former Harrisites like Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

For food safety, the results have been disastrous.

In 2008, an outbreak of listeriosis at a Toronto meat packing plant killed 23 people. Two years later, tainted meat from another Toronto plant hospitalized three more.

As the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted, the 2008 deaths came after Ottawa took the primary inspection function away from federal regulators and handed it over to the meat packing companies themselves.

The journal called this decision “risky.”

But to Harper — like Harris — deregulation only made sense. Harris assumed that small Ontario towns like Walkerton would have the good sense to keep their drinking water clean.

Harper assumed that profit-making companies would make sure that their consumers received safe products.

In both cases, they were wrong.

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