Control freak Poobah Harper obscures work of food agency
Whistle blower fired biologist Pomerleau should win grievance

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Originally written for Ontario Farmer

Most readers have heard about the Harper government’s obsession with rigid, centralized control over every peep uttered by federal departments and agencies.

It was understandable when the Harper cabinet came to power in 2006 short on experience in government. Since then it has evolved into a generally stupid policy.

Case in point is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency which came up with some sensible ideas for meeting the government’s request last year for a 5 per cent cut in spending. It wanted to shift the focus of its regulatory activities to concentrate on the areas of the food industry where there’s the most risk to consumers.

We heard the general outline of the plan in utterances by CFIA brass during the last six months but the complete version was never rolled out. That’s because the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board wanted to create a communications strategy for it that would convince us the government wasn’t denigrating food safety. Also it wanted to cast the most positive light on the government’s new Food and Consumer Product Safety Action Plan.

CFIA is usually quite capable of explaining itself but in this case the bright lights that control all in Ottawa wanted to be in charge. Months passed, nothing happened.

Enter Luc Pomerleau, a biologist with 20 years service in the federal government and a steward with the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPS). He found a copy of the plan on CFIA’s internal website and, acting as any elected union officer should, sent the plan to PIPS so it could look at the implication for its members at CFIA.

CFIA fired Pomerleau when it learned what he’d done. He should be completely vindicated in a grievance hearing. The unnamed senior official who left the plan on the web site is the one to blame.

Anyway PIPS went to the media over the harsh treatment of Pomerleau and the plan was out in the open. With little else going on, the news media jumped on the story and out popped stories suggesting CFIA was turning over the responsibility for safety to the companies. CFIA was slow to respond because it has to prepare media lines and get permission to talk to reporters from the poobahs in this government.

So that great communications plan has gone up in smoke. When they got permission, CFIA officials were able to justify the plan. That was the proverbial closing the barn door after the horse was gone. Many people will probably associate the changes at CFIA, which aren’t easy for outsiders to understand, with a lessening of food safety just as some news reports have suggested.

All thanks to the control freaks in this government.

Freeman Libby, who’s in charge of CFIA’s plan, insists, “We’re not reducing the number of inspectors; we’ve hired more in the last couple of years.”

CFIA wants to move away from regular inspection of plants with approved food safety systems in favour of audits of their safety actions.

In turn, the moves would free up resources and inspectors to concentrate on parts of the food business, including processing and imports, where safety problems have been found. Unions have objected to the shift because they fear job losses although the Agency’s staff has ballooned in recent years to 6,500 employees.