September 5, 2008 / 5:16 PM / in 9 years

Liberals call for farm minister to resign

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The Liberal Party called on Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to resign on Thursday over comments he made about meat inspection in the wake of a food-poisoning outbreak linked to 19 deaths.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion said a leaked cabinet document shows the Conservatives went ahead with a plan earlier this year to shift food-safety control programs to industry, giving federal meat inspectors only an oversight role.

But Ritz has maintained that the document was only a discussion paper and said the plan had not been implemented -- comments that Dion dismissed.

“He pretended that a change to the way that the food inspection is done in Canada had not been done -- it was only a project,” Dion said.

“Inspectors are more inspecting paper than meat,” he said.

Ritz said Dion’s comments were political posturing ahead of an election that is widely expected to be called within days for October 14.

“The whole concept of food safety and how we look after consumers in this country ... if the opposition wants to politicize this particular section of it, they do it at their peril,” Ritz told reporters in Ottawa.

Ritz also said his government has hired more inspectors and increased funding to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency during the past two years.

Dion also took issue with Ritz’s claim last month that meat inspectors spend about half their time on plant floors, noting the president of a union representing the inspectors called the minister’s statement “pure fiction.”

Health officials believe at least 38 people across the country have had listeriosis food poisoning in the past few months.

The same strain of the bacteria was found in deli meat from a Toronto plant owned by Maple Leaf Foods Inc, one of Canada’s largest food processors.

Maple Leaf’s chief executive has said the company was accountable for the outbreak, and said it was not the fault of the food safety system.

The company has pulled more than 200 products off the market in one of the biggest food recalls ever in Canada. Maple Leaf and food safety regulators continue to investigate what went wrong at the plant, which remains closed.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday the federal government would hold a public inquiry into the outbreak after an election.

The Liberals said Harper made the announcement about the public inquiry to deflect questions during the run-up to an election campaign.

“I do think that the distraction of calling for an inquiry instead of examining the government’s fingerprints all over this disaster is a travesty,” said Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Party’s public health critic.

($1=$1.06 Canadian)

Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Louise Egan; editing by Frank McGurty

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