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Listeriosis investigator, top public health officer, grilled by MPs

OTTAWA -- The top investigator into last summer's deadly listeriosis outbreak denies a conflict of interest over her role on the prime minister's advisory board to revamp the public service.

OTTAWA -- The top investigator into last summer's deadly listeriosis outbreak denies a conflict of interest over her role on the prime minister's advisory board to revamp the public service.

Sheila Weatherill said Wednesday there's no conflict and the two jobs aren't related in any way.

Weatherill, the former head of Edmonton's regional health system, defended the closed-door investigation as the best way for people to tell her what happened during the crisis.

Weatherill appeared before a special parliamentary subcommittee on food safety Wednesday.

They were her first public comments since Prime Minister Stephen Harper named her to lead the probe.

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She is to report to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz by July 20.

In January, the Conservative government named Weatherill to investigate last summer's deadly listeriosis outbreak, traced to deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

Twenty-one Canadians died and hundreds more fell ill after eating tainted meats.

Weatherill's report to Ritz will assess how federal departments and agencies responded to what went wrong. It will also make recommendations on how to prevent similar outbreaks.

Secrecy shrouds her work. She holds private meetings with food inspectors, industry groups and government officials in her Ottawa office at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's headquarters.

A timeline on her website indicates Weatherill is now analyzing facts and beginning the "in-depth" part of her probe.

That's four months past the original March 15 due date set when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an "arm's-length" investigation last September.

The government will decide what details of the report, if any, to release.

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Weatherill will not express findings of criminal or civil liability. Nor will she have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel sworn testimony.

The prime minister's office initially said she won't publicly comment until her report is done.

That was before opposition MPs on the all-party Commons agriculture committee success-fully pushed for a seven-member sub-panel to investigate food safety.

The sub-panel was struck after the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois lambasted Harper's refusal to call a judicial inquiry into the listeriosis crisis.

Critics question Weatherill's credibility because she already serves on the prime minis-ter's advisory board to revamp the public service.

Weatherill was the head of Edmonton's regional health system until she and seven other top executives lost their jobs last July. Their dismissal was part of the Alberta government's move to integrate separate health regions into one super board.

Weatherill collected a severance and retirement package worth almost $3.5 million.

Last October, the province's auditor general singled out some of the million-dollar salaries paid to heads of regional health boards, including Weatherill, who earned $915,000 a year.

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

Canada's chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones, was to appear before the food safety sub-panel after Weatherill.

A report on the listeriosis crisis, released last Friday by Ontario's top public health offi-cial, criticized Butler-Jones for being scarce during the outbreak.

Speaking notes published on the Public Health Agency of Canada's website show Butler-Jones gave one technical briefing on listeriosis and released four written statements.

Maple Leaf president Michael McCain became the public face of the outbreak in his ab-sence.

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