Stephen Harper's listeria probe reflects his penchant for secrecy

On January 16, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued another listeria alert following contamination of Hygaard submarine sandwiches, which were distributed in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will finally appoint someone to investigate the listeriosis outbreak last year in Maple Leaf Foods products, which killed 20 Canadians.

This is  according to a story in today's National Post  by Don Martin, who relied on unnamed sources.

Harper’s handling of this situation suggests food safety isn’t near the top of his political agenda.

He declared there would be an investigation last September, four days before an election was called. At the time, he claimed that the investigation would be completed by March 15.

But by mid-January, he still hadn’t named anyone to look into the matter. And when he got around to this--if Martin's story is true, and it isn't a trial balloon--this only occurred after another listeria  problem surfaced in luncheon meat  in  Harper's home province.

It's probably  no coincidence that the appointment of an investigator, Sheila Weatherill,  will occur  shortly before Parliament was about to resume, when  Harper would face this issue in Question Period. Now, he  will be able to  say he can't speak about listeria because it's under investigation.

In typical Harper fashion, he  appears ready to  muzzle Weatherill, a former president of the Edmonton Health Authority.

Martin noted that she won’t be able to speak to the media until her work is filed with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz by July 20—more than four months after the prime minister’s original deadline.

This will prevent Weatherill from going on talk shows to raise awareness of the issue.

Ritz, who gained national notoriety after cracking jokes about the fatal listeriosis outbreak, will be in a position to release the report in the middle of summer, when the public doesn’t pay much attention to the news.

The Conservatives will enjoy the added benefit of doing this while Parliament is on a summer break, ensuring there won’t be any nasty exchanges during Question Period while the news of the report is fresh.

But that’s not all. Harper appears ready to prevent Weatherill from issuing subpoenas to force people to testify. This  would reduce the likelihood of any whistleblower revelations to Weatherhill.

Harper’s handling of this issue stands in stark contrast with Maple Leaf Foods, which made its officials available to the media, took responsibility for its errors, and paid a $25-million settlement to the victims.

Harper rode into power in 2006 promising greater accountability to Canadians.

What he delivered was a command-and-control government operated out of the prime minister’s office. The investigation into the listeriosis outbreak, which killed 20 people,  appears to be  another example of this.

What a shame for anyone who cares about food safety in this country.

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