OTTAWA -- The Conservative government is refuting opposition claims Canada has a "two-tiered" food inspection system that puts the quality of beef exports ahead of meat consumed at home.
A memo from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to its employees at the XL Foods processing plant in Brooks, Alta., instructed some inspectors to ignore contamination on cattle carcasses unless they were destined for Japan.
The agency responded Thursday by saying the same safety standards apply to meat for domestic consumption and for overseas exports, and reports to the contrary are "categorically false."
"As the CFIA has confirmed, the meat sold in Canada is just as safe as meat exported to other countries," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons.
"There are strict food safety standards in this country. That is the law."
XL Foods became the epicentre of one of the largest beef recalls in Canadian history earlier this year after meat contaminated with E. coli was stopped at the Canada-U.S. border in September.
People in at least four provinces were found to have been made ill by the E. coli strain; it wasn't until October the XL plant was allowed to resume production.
Agency officials said Thursday they recommended last week to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that XL Foods be relisted, and provided the USDA with an "in-depth assessment" of the plant in an effort to reopen the American market to XL products.
Reports on the CFIA inspection memo won't help.
The issue dominated the opening salvos of question period Thursday, with the NDP's Nycole Turmel asking provocatively, "What rate of fecal contamination are the Conservatives prepared to accept?"
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz called the allegations "absolutely unfounded and untrue."
As is often the case, reality is more nuanced than the rhetoric.
The XL plant does have a Japan-specific inspection station, Paul Mayers, the CFIA's vice-president of programs, explained in a conference call.
Japan only allows the import of beef from cattle younger than 20 months. Those export carcasses for Japan must be free of elements such as spinal columns, fecal and intestinal materials -- conditions that also apply to all Canada's domestic and export beef.
"Japan... requires that a specific station be present on the line in order to confirm those conditions," said Mayers. "Is it necessary in the context of market access? Yes. Is it a requirement from a food safety perspective? No, because that assurance is provided already in terms of the system."
-- The Canadian Press