Former health exec to head limited listeriosis probe

OTTAWA -- The Harper government has named an investigator to report by July 20 on last year's deadly listeriosis outbreak -- a four-month delay from the original timeline.

OTTAWA -- The Harper government has named an investigator to report by July 20 on last year's deadly listeriosis outbreak -- a four-month delay from the original timeline.

Sheila Weatherill, former head of Edmonton's regional health system, will examine the August outbreak linked to processed meat products from Maple Leaf Foods Inc. (TSX:MFI).

Her probe will be kept under wraps until she reports to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Critics call that a "media blackout" and took aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's re-fusal to call a full judicial inquiry that would allow Weatherill to call witnesses and compel



Twenty people died after developing the food-borne illness that is a particular threat to the elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

The bacterium causing listeriosis was linked to machinery at a Maple Leaf plant in To-ronto. The company has apologized and offered to pay up to $27 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.

Weatherill is to make independent recommendations on how to prevent similar outbreaks but will not express findings of criminal or civil liability.

"Protecting the health of Canadian families and the safety of the Canadian food supply is of paramount importance to our government," Harper said in a news release Tuesday.

Maple Leaf Foods president and chief executive Michael McCain said in a statement late Tuesday that the company is "pleased" Ottawa is moving ahead with the investigation.

McCain said the company will cooperate fully "sharing our key learnings from this past fall."

"We are confident that the joint efforts by government and industry, and the consistent application of high standards, will further enhance the Canadian food safety system and the integrity of our food," McCain stated.

Critics say Weatherill isn't being fully equipped for a crucial job.


"She will get information based on the good will of the participants who may or may not tell her the full story," said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union which repre-sents meat inspectors through the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"I think they would rather just see it go away," he said of the federal government's delayed reaction to the listeriosis disaster.

Harper announced the "arm's-length" investigation last September, four days before forc-ing an early federal election. A senior government source has said several people were ap-proached to lead the probe but were unavailable or unwilling to take on the job.

A report to the government that was initially due March 15 has now been put off to July 20.

The union is pushing for a parliamentary review of the outbreak and Canada's food-safety system. Kingston has written to MPs on the all-party Commons agriculture committee, urging them to investigate.

"While the prime minister has finally announced an investigator...he has not given her the latitude or power to properly carry out her work," Kingston wrote.

"In the months since the crisis, evidence has been mounting that Canada's food safety, in-spection and enforcement systems are stretched to the breaking point."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says it has hired 200 new food-safety inspec-tion staff since 2006 to work in related labs, in food recall and other support areas.


Some of those new workers are now front-line inspectors in meat-processing plants but Kingston said they replaced staff who retired or moved on.

The union says at least 200 new inspectors are needed in the ready-to-eat meat sector alone.

"On average, processed meat inspectors who work for CFIA are responsible for four meat-processing facilities -- double the realistic workload," Kingston said.

Opposition MPs also called Tuesday for a full judicial inquiry.

"Canadians deserve the truth," said Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter.

"Ms. Weatherill's resources and powers are too limited to reveal what actually happened."

Rick Holley, a professor of food safety and food microbiology at the University of Mani-toba, has repeatedly called for a nationally co-ordinated surveillance program to track food-borne illness.

The listeriosis investigation "may reveal specific issues associated with what went wrong in that (Maple Leaf) plant but it will really do very little to address the food-safety issues that are of real concern in Canada," he said.


Federal, provincial and municipal governments all have a hand in food safety, Holley said.

"And it's not well co-ordinated. There are many areas where the inspection overlaps and there's uncertainty. But there are equally many -- if not more -- areas where there are gaps that are not being addressed."

Canada needs a reliable program to identify food-borne risks and the organisms that make people sick, Holley says. Otherwise, Canadians must be prepared for more food-poisoning outbreaks, he stressed.

Weatherill was president and CEO of Edmonton's Capital Health until she and seven other top executives lost their jobs last July. Their dismissal was part of the provincial Conserva-tive government's move to integrate separate health regions into one super board.

Weatherill, who was paid $915,000 a year according to published reports, collected a sev-erance and retirement package worth almost $3.5 million.

As head listeriosis investigator, she is to be paid between $1,200 and $1,400 a day, plus travel and living expenses.

Weatherill is a member of the Order of Canada and was named to the prime minister's ad-visory committee on the public service in 2006.

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