NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Department of Agriculture
Meat Inspection Program
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Hon. Keith Colwell, Chairman
Mr. Howard Epstein, Vice-Chairman
Mr. Clarrie MacKinnon
Mr. Gary Ramey
Mr. Mat Whynott
Mr. Brian Skabar
Hon. Manning MacDonald
Mr. Chuck Porter
Mr. Allan MacMaster
[Mr. Leo Glavine replaced Hon. Manning MacDonald]
Mrs. Darlene Henry
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Terry Spicer
Assistant Auditor General
Ms. Karen Kinley
Legislative Counsel Office
Department of Agriculture
Mr. Paul LaFleche, Deputy Minister
Mr. Mike Horwich, Director of Food Protection and Enforcement
Ms. Karen Wong-Petrie, Food Safety Program Analyst
Mr. Weldon Myers, Director of Financial Services
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28, 2012
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Hon. Keith Colwell
Mr. Howard Epstein
MR. CHAIRMAN: Good morning, I’d like to call the meeting to order. We’ll start by doing introductions and I’ll start with Mr. Ramey.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Good morning everyone. I’d like to welcome the department here this morning for our hearing today. I realize the deputy minister is running a little bit late. Are you prepared to make a presentation at this point that the deputy minister would normally do?
MR. MIKE HORWICH: Yes, I can provide that introduction.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much.
MR. HORWICH: Thank you. We certainly appreciate the opportunity today to address your questions concerning the Auditor General’s Report. We’ve looked at the recommendations and have accepted all these process recommendations for our program.
Our program itself is approximately 25 years old, it started out as a voluntary program with eight meat plants involved in the program. It has matured and grown to become a mandatory program and there are 26 meat plants which I would suggest to you are key elements of our rural community, our livestock industry, and particularly our buy local.
I’m very pleased that Karen Wong-Petrie could join us today. Karen is one of the few individuals in Canada that holds both a public health inspection national certification and has a master’s degree in food safety. Karen was instrumental in designing a meat processing training program which we have implemented and put forward for our staff and industry. As well, the Provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have looked at this program and asked that Karen train their staff in it as well. In the region we are certainly leaders in this area and Karen has done a lot of work in this area.
We are very pleased to answer any questions you might have.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much and thank you again for coming today. We’ll start our questioning with Mr. Glavine.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you to all department officials for coming in today. I’ll start with a departmental response from Recommendation 3.1, which states:
“Management has drafted updated regulations which reflect the current operating procedures of the program. These updated draft regulations will be reviewed in light of the Auditor General’s recommendations and considered for implementation by the Department prior to December 31, 2012.”
I was wanting to know how this process is actually moving along, I guess on the ground, in real time?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you for your question. The regulations are currently being reviewed again. These regulations were drafted probably about five years ago in light of changes that we’ve had and we were moving forward with them at that time. We chose to move to more of an education approach as opposed to a regulatory approach as consistent with the Act. We are looking at these regulations right now, as I’ve said, in terms of the Auditor General’s Report. They are very consistent from what I can see, to date. We’ll have another review of them. I tend to run things through my staff before I would go any further just to make sure and that’s where we are with the process, sir.
MR. GLAVINE: I’m just wondering, have you set any particular timeline or target - like the end of 2012 - for them to be fully put in place and I guess we would say part of moving the inspection process forward?
MR. HORWICH: No, we have not chosen a specific date at this point in time. Again, I think first things first; we do our review, ensure everything is consistent and we’re happy with it, then, at that time, approaching the community and government to move these forward.
MR. GLAVINE: So then I guess, will there be a copy of the draft regulations, so that again they can be examined and see if they are in line with the Auditor General, the industry and government’s view of this?
MR. HORWICH: Absolutely, any consultation that we would do would certainly contain these draft regulations.
MR. GLAVINE: Looking at the response from Recommendations 3.2 to 3.5 - and again, just to kind of provide for the committee the background, it states:
“Management will enhance and consolidate existing tacit and written policies into a policy manual which will address recommendations to deal with concerns of severity ratings for deficiencies, compliance dates and follow up inspections. This manual will be completed by September 2012.”
I’m just wondering if you are on track to meet this deadline?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, we are. We have established a committee of individuals within our shop. I think one of the challenges that we all have had is, we have different policies in different places and we are going to consolidate them. That’s one thing we are going to look at - best practices across the country, although we already are owners of many of the best practices, I might add. Our committee is on track for this, yes.
MR. GLAVINE: How would you then have a plan for inspectors and parties concerned to review that and implement what will be in the manual?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you for that question. We have regular meetings with our inspectors, regular sessions. They are involved not only in terms of reviewing the policies but actually helping develop them and through our regular training sessions this will be rolled out.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you very much, and I welcome the deputy minister to the questioning here this morning.
I’m going to follow along that line of looking at specific recommendations. So looking at the department response from Recommendation 3.7, it states:
“Management will develop written policy to be included in a policy manual which will include requirements for the documentation of actions taken when deficiencies are not corrected. This manual will be completed by September 2012.”
Again, how is the process coming along and are you firm on a deadline for September?
MR. HORWICH: The process is moving along. Again, it’s this committee that we have struck to look at all of these process recommendations that the Auditor General has put forward. We are on target for September.
We are in a situation where we are into continuous improvement the whole time so indeed, the Auditor General has made recommendations but we may find something that even enhances those. So this is a living process and we should be on target, yet.
MR. GLAVINE: And in response to Recommendation 3.8, it states:
“Management will undertake immediately a risk assessment process aimed at establishing a science and risk based inspection approach for slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. This approach currently exists in the restaurant inspection program and will be used as the basis to respond to this recommendation . . .”
That was to be effective December 31, 2011. Once again, I want to know if that deadline was met.
MR. HORWICH: That deadline has been met in terms of gathering the information. The actual risk assessment, risk management piece has not been put in place. We have an electronic system, database and information, which is called AMANDA. We are trying to work with that IT piece. The date of December 11th, I believe it was, was a little ambitious. I thought I was more of an IT genius than I really am, but we are still working on it and we are going to get there.
MR. GLAVINE: Have concerned parties been notified about the new risk management approach that you were hoping to have in place, if you wish, by December 31st?
MR. HORWICH: I’m sorry, I don’t understand - the concerned parties.
MR. GLAVINE: I was wondering if, when you say we have 26 slaughterhouses - there were some issues more glaring with some of the slaughterhouses. I’m just wondering then around risk management, if there has been any direction towards perhaps that group that did need more of the guidelines to be implemented quicker?
MR. HORWICH: After the Auditor General’s Report came out, there was substantial discussion with many of the meat plants. I had most of those discussions - the risk management issue was brought up. We said it was all part of the process. It will be rolled out in time when we have our ducks in a row, quite honestly. We haven’t discussed that anymore with those concerned parties, as you mentioned.
MR. GLAVINE: One of the issues that did receive perhaps a bit more attention was the quality of water used in the slaughterhouses, potable water. I’m wondering what discussions you’ve had with the Department of Environment in this regard to make sure that while the meat may be inspected, fine - we may have a problem with the water. I’m just wondering where you’ve gone in that area.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, I’ve had discussions with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and have suggested that these meat plants be included in what they refer to as the registered water supply, which will put requirements for bacteriological testing four times a year and chemical testing once a year. Currently, our system is that we test twice a year for bacteria in their wells.
MR. GLAVINE: Response to Recommendation 3.13 states, “Management will establish a detailed time activity report for use by inspectors and management by December 31, 2011.” I’m wondering if this deadline was met and if not, why not?
MR. HORWICH: It was met in terms of establishing the reporting and the specific activities; I believe that’s what it was. It has not, however, been included in our IT piece. Again, I’ll take responsibility for that, being much too ambitious.
MR. GLAVINE: So in terms of this detailed time activity report, when would that be available to take a look at?
MR. HORWICH: Just not electronically, but I can get that to you within a week or so.
MR. GLAVINE: Maybe all the committee could have a look at that.
MR. HORWICH: Certainly.
MR. GLAVINE: If you could make a note, it would be much appreciated.
MR. HORWICH: We have an existing reporting form. It wasn’t as detailed as the Auditor General suggested it should be. It was more of just providing that level of specifics.
MR. GLAVINE: Response to Recommendation 3.14 states, “Management will regularly monitor and assess performance of staff through use of a performance appraisal process. This will be initiated January 2012.” Again, I’m wondering if this process has, indeed, been initiated.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, it has been initiated. The performance appraisal process is one that takes a year or so to complete, so the initial objectives have been set with all of the meat inspectors. This has been done by the senior meat inspector and a year after, then we evaluate where their performance fell. So yes, it’s in process.
MR. GLAVINE: Was there anything in particular included, added to, that new process, if you wanted to be a little stronger to make sure that all the guidelines were being followed? Was there anything you added to that, that would be discernibly different from the process that had been in place?
MR. HORWICH: Not particularly. The process within the Public Service hits the high points on performance appraisal; that is setting of joint objectives, and looking at training and issues both from an individual point of view and one collectively. It discusses where we are and what support the employee would like to enhance their ability to do their job. So it’s a very good process, it’s just a matter of getting it done.
MR. GLAVINE: Right, thank you. Another target is June 2012 and that’s in regard to Recommendation 3.15 and developing a quality assurance process for the meat inspection program, identifying key operational activities. Again, is the department on track to meet this deadline which was pinpointed as June 2012?
MR. HORWICH: We have not started that recommendation yet, a number of things have to fall into place before we would get to a quality assurance because we have to know where we’re going and then we would assess the quality. As soon as we are in a position to move forward on that recommendation we will be moving forward on it, yes.
MR. GLAVINE: In terms of quality assurance, we often hear in the Department of Agriculture, meat inspection at the plant level that really there’s not much difference between provincial and federal inspection processes. That being said and having the Auditor General outline a number of areas where we didn’t seem to be as strong as what we needed to be to give the greatest assurance to our citizens, if we were following federal guidelines would, in fact, there have been a different outcome when the Auditor General did inspections - let’s say if we used the standards of the federal inspection process?
MR. HORWICH: I suspect there would have been, yes. I suspect the Auditor General would have found other issues with the federal system, not the same issues that they found with the provincial system, yes.
MR. GLAVINE: Recommendation 3.15 states that management will develop – sorry; you did help me with that, thank you.
MR. HORWICH: You’re welcome.
MR. GLAVINE: Recommendation 3.16 states, “Management will immediately implement a policy related to documenting and investigation of complaints concerning provincial meat plants.” Again, was this recommendation, in fact, implemented immediately? I think that’s where the report did receive a lot of attention.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, we have a system where complaints are collected, and they can be collected in many ways: one through the Web, they can come directly to our staff, or they can come through the department in general terms or to the government in general terms and they’re all funnelled down through. It’s a matter of collecting them and putting them into one place. We reinforced the fact with our staff that if they do get a complaint to document it. We have done pretty good with that, I must say, that wasn’t a real vexing issue.
MR. GLAVINE: The most extreme example of non-monitoring compliance was a slaughterhouse that operated without a facility inspection for the entire 21-month period covered by the audit, April 2009 to December 2010. What slaughterhouse was this?
MR. HORWICH: I don’t know.
MR. GLAVINE: So you just took it in a general context because, again, how do we know that improvements have been made here?
MR. HORWICH: A number of the slaughterhouses are very seasonal in nature; some closed, and some have licences and they haven’t operated for 18 months or two years. As a matter of fact, that recommendation has caused me to go back and look at our licensing regime. I’ve asked the senior meat inspector to contact those facilities that were not in operation during that time frame or for some period of time and asked them if they want to continue with their licence, should we suspend their licence, where should we go with that, because that is a situation itself that would cause concern. Without knowing the details, it looks like we didn’t do inspection but, indeed, they may have been closed for that whole period of time.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you for that explanation. I guess a little bit of a departure here for a moment, one of the issues that I hear in the Valley - and it may be no different in other parts of the province - is the non-provincially-inspected sites. So when we have a farmer who we know is, in fact, slaughtering hogs or chickens or cattle on their premises, when that comes your way, do you have an obligation or requirement to actually take a look at that site? I mean I’m certainly aware of some in the Valley. I’m just wondering, what happens if you, in fact, get a citizen’s complaint with that kind of meat-slaughtering place?
MR. HORWICH: The uninspected slaughter, as you refer to it, is a legal activity under the Meat Inspection Act if the owner of the animal and person who slaughters it does not sell third party. That means that this uninspected meat cannot go into a grocery store or a restaurant or anywhere else. So if we did receive a complaint that it was going third party, we would certainly pay a visit to the facility. It’s both illegal to buy it and it’s illegal to sell it to a restaurant or a grocery store.
If there was a citizen’s complaint, essentially it’s a buyer-beware situation that you would be looking at.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thirty seconds.
MR. GLAVINE: Thirty seconds doesn’t give me, I guess, a lot of time. Just very quickly then, when animals are being slaughtered in our provincial sites, in our provincial plants, is there an inspector on-site always? Can we be guaranteed of that?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, you can be guaranteed of that and the Auditor General . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for the Liberal caucus has expired. Mr. Porter.
MR. CHUCK PORTER: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thanks to the committee and, Mr. Horwich, please continue with the answer. I’ll allow my time for the question and let’s move on with that.
MR. HORWICH: Thank you very much, I appreciate that. Yes, indeed, the Auditor General did examine that fact and found that our inspectors were present at each slaughter, so that is recorded in the report.
MR. PORTER: Thank you very much for finishing that off. It was a question that I had, as well, so it fits right in.
I want to back up a little bit, though - again, I thank you for being with us and welcome the deputy minister to the Legislature this morning. Prior to the AG’s Report you never heard too much about any of these issues; obviously you spent some time on it and rightfully so, it’s certainly an important piece of what we do here in the province and in our country. Food is important to each and every one of us and the safety of it.
Were there any concerns within the department with the policies and procedures and such that existed prior to this, that there were issues, or was the department - and I hate to use the term - generally happy overall or satisfied with the process? Were there ever any alerts that said maybe we should be looking at this more and changing it anyway, or was it totally the AG’s Report that started the drilling in that we should be working more on this or was there something started before that?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you very much. As I mentioned earlier, we are in a situation, our program is one of continuous improvement and we are always moving forward. If there are any trends that we would detect, we would address those trends, adapt if we had to. We were well aware of the regulatory issue, the inconsistency between the regulation and the Act. We had worked on that and we’re moving forward.
The documentation of the processes, we were aware of as well. That’s why we put in place our IT system. Again, I’m not the expert, but we have an IT system that will address this and we plan to utilize this system to address the concerns that we had prior to the Auditor General’s Report and, indeed, in discussions with the Auditor General they agreed that some of our concerns that we brought forward, they acknowledged, yes.
MR. PORTER: Thank you. So you know, really a big piece of this is the quality assurance. There’s no question that is probably the most important part of all of this, but there was nothing in place at the time to measure any quality assurance, if I heard you correctly. What was the basic quality assurance, if any, that was in place prior to the AG’s Report and recommendation?
MR. HORWICH: Quality assurance is one that is done by management to assess the activities of staff generally. We do not measure every particular activity. However, the senior meat inspector visits all the plants to ensure that when the inspector does the audit that the audit is consistent with what the senior meat inspector sees. I also discuss with the senior meat inspector his activities, so that was our quality assurance program as such.
It’s not a situation where we have one inspector assigned to one plant and no one ever talks to them and they are an island on their own. There is a very strong team approach that we have, we support each other and I believe that is one of the best types of quality assurances that you can have.
MR. PORTER: Within that style of reporting or quality assurance - from what I heard you say, it doesn’t sound like it is overly detailed. It sounds like it is a lot of hands-on or has been maybe a lot but there has been some hands-on in the approach of the quality assurance piece. Is there or was there ever, a final report, a detailed quality assurance report that says look, slaughterhouse A - Oulton’s as an example, out my way and numerous others are all in line and keeping with the current policies, procedures. There have been no issues or there have been these issues, these corrections have been done.
What outcomes have actually been reported, documented? Were they any part of that? I know you talked about IT documentation and we’ll get into that in a minute but were there any detailed reports that were ever submitted to the department or the minister or to those responsible, if there were issues?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, there are audits that take place at these plants. These are conducted by the inspectors or by the senior meat inspector. These are actual documented audits and they are on file.
We strive to achieve monthly audits, it’s a tacit policy that we do have. They are available for review. I hope that answers your question.
MR. PORTER: Thank you and just on maybe that same piece, I have seen inspectors at Oulton’s, as an example - I mean, I purchased things there and was introduced to one of them back in December or something. I think he just happened to stroll in there on a Saturday morning and I had an opportunity to meet him at the time. He was coming to witness some slaughtering or to inspect in general.
So that’s great, there’s a report done each time they go. Who is looking at that? I know that you have a very well-trained specialist with you in Ms. Petrie, so would that report go to maybe Ms. Petrie then, to say look, everything looks fine here? What is the top level quality assurance piece I guess is what I’m getting to? Who is the end-all, be-all, to say everything looks great and we’ve had no issues, or we’re having issues?
Obviously the Auditor General, and the reason I bring this forward, the Auditor General wasn’t happy with what he saw, and his team, when he went in and said you know you mentioned monthly, Mr. Horwich, we strive - interesting word - we strive to get there monthly although we know that doesn’t happen or hasn’t happened in the past, according to the AG’s Report.
Is there a top level person who says, I solely take responsibility for this, like one of the very well-trained specialists you have with you today, or where does it stop? Who is the end-all, be-all for quality assurance and really measuring this? The reason I ask this is food safety is ultimately the main thing here for everyone.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, there is a person and that is me.
MR. PORTER: That’s you?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, I am the administrator of the Act. I am responsible for licensing, I am responsible, in essence, for the food safety program. The outcome is what we are very much interested in.
The Auditor General’s Report is based on process, I operate on outcome - two very different things. We appreciate the process recommendations and they are directed at improving our system and we acknowledge that. However, our system is based on a multiple-barrier approach, so there are more things than just an audit that determine food safety. For instance, the government supports the activities of those plants by putting through a piece of legislation which allows the administrator - and I am currently in that position - to take very swift action should there be a situation where public health may be compromised. I have done that on numerous occasions where there’s even a suggestion of it, so we had that.
Another barrier that we have is a financial barrier which is to prevent bacteria from moving forward through the system. We actually support these meat plants in purchasing equipment and providing upgrade to their plants in the name of food safety. We have barriers of education. You will see in our report that we have a multiple-barrier approach to food safety that will give you the outcome that we want. Despite the criticisms regarding the process, it is clearly the outcome of food safety that we are interested in.
This multiple-barrier approach - if you can imagine a racetrack and you have fences all along the oval and the bacteria have to start at one spot and they have to jump each fence before they get to the end, these barriers are the fences and one of the barriers is education: the more you train somebody, the more they will know how to prevent bacteria from reaching around. The more you help finance with new equipment, that’s another barrier. We all have barriers at home, it’s called cooking, and that’s a barrier that prevents it. Government has barriers, industry has barriers, the consumer has barriers; all of these barriers add up and prevent bacteria from reaching the end point, and that’s what we want, to prevent food-borne illness.
What the Auditor General did was take a look at one of these fences which is, for the most part, the process piece and said, do you know your fence has some scratches in it, your fence has a little chip out of it here, your fence doesn’t even look like some of the other fences, but that does not necessarily mean the outcome of food safety is not achieved. We take those recommendations very seriously and we want to repair that fence and we are going to do that, but we have all these other barriers in place that allow me to say to you that the meat coming out of provincial meat plants is safe and that we’ve never had a situation that we can trace back, in terms of a food-borne illness, to a provincial meat plant.
MR. PORTER: Thank you very much, that’s an interesting analogy the way you did it, and very simple. Actually, people who are listening or will read the minutes of this will probably understand, and I wanted to get there and kind of simplify it in all honesty. I think there are people who don’t understand that piece. You see this blow up and coming out of an Auditor General’s Report, and that sounds pretty serious - well, it is serious, there’s no question and I’m not taking anything away from that because it is real serious.
It was interesting, the different levels of the fence here, the education piece and I know there are food-handling courses for organizations and such and all of these things that say this is part of the education that government would provide and put forward for us to take if we so desired, or have to. Of course, all organizations, I guess, are supposed to have a food-handling course and that’s all good.
It’s interesting that some of the barriers, of course, are money, as you mentioned. I’ll ask this question and I’ll look for your answer and that is, is there ever enough money to make sure - this being very important and significant, especially dealing with food here, and the AG also expressed - is there enough money allocated in the department, in the budgets annually to say we’re spending enough on those food-handling courses and other types of education? All of the barriers that you spoke of, programs for plants or what they should be doing, et cetera, is there enough money there? I know we could probably spend more in some areas, but that’s an important question and I think people are concerned. You talk about budgets being balanced and not balanced and so on, I know that people are worrying about this and hence the reason I ask the question, is there enough financial support going in to make sure that you can sit there and say the food is safe in Nova Scotia?
MR. HORWICH: Absolutely.
MR. PORTER: Great. That’s the right answer, I guess, and as long as you’re happy then most people should take that and say, okay, good, Mr. Horwich says that there’s enough money there, we’re doing what we need to do and things should improve, I guess, is what we’re looking for here by way of the recommendations. You’ve said that we’re meeting some timelines; we’re not quite there with other timelines. Is there ever a point in all of this, the quality assurance piece, the developing policy and procedure - and I can see where policy and procedure would probably be a living document as things change, as new discoveries are made. I mean, this is very much a science, as we all know and understand. I’m sure there are new revelations annually or weekly, or whatever, in this world that say maybe we could do this better or do that better and that was part of the reason for the money question. All of that, of course, takes time, effort and money.
With that, I would just - I know right now we’re in the midst of reviewing and adding policy. Mr. Glavine talked about different time frames. Do you see a point when you’re happy with where we are by way of policy, procedure, legislation, regulation - call it what you want - and that the rules are solid in Nova Scotia? You may find that hard to argue with now, given that there hasn’t been a problem, but I think we’ve been lucky to some degree probably too. Also, we probably have good-quality people working in the industry, as well, and I would credit them for that, like the Oultons and the Lambs and so on and so forth that are in this industry who know the importance of food safety. Is there ever a time when we’re pretty confident, and we can sit back and say, I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do here and we’ve met everything that the AG spoke of?
MR. HORWICH: There will never be that time. The reason I say that is because the enemy is bacteria. Bacteria mutate, bacteria change and we always have to be vigilant in terms of food safety. That’s why we have experts like Karen Wong-Petrie on our staff who can advise us in these issues. I am confident, given the authority that I have under the Meat Inspection Act, that I can address any particular issue which is a threat to public health. That does not mean we stop. We are clearly in a situation of continuous improvement. We always - if you look 10 or 15 years ago, no one ever heard of mad cow disease, then all of a sudden it overtook the world and almost stopped the economy. We’ve had to address that in our provincial facilities as well. Things change, we adapt. We are always vigilant.
MR. PORTER: Thank you for that as well. You’ve been in this business for a little while now. I don’t know how long exactly, but I understand awhile. People would say, okay, it’s great, Mr. Horwich is going to sit there and answer these questions and he’s going to be confident and he’s going to say that I administrate this, and there were two processes, I think, and outcome measurement. I don’t mean this the way it sounds, but people would say what qualifications does he have? I think when I asked the question earlier, who is the be-all and end-all, who is the top dog here in all of this, and you said you are. Again, I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful in any way, your experience in all of these things, but I’m just looking to clarify that for the people who are listening, who are interested in this very thing. They want to feel comfortable, as well, so this is your opportunity to tell us a little bit about you and why people are comfortable there as well. I appreciate that, by the way.
MR. PAUL LAFLECHE: Maybe I’ll answer that so Mr. Horwich doesn’t have to brag about himself. We only hire people who are qualified in the profession for both the food-inspection and the meat-inspection side. Mr. Horwich is, I think, 33 or 34 years into the game, but he has some interesting past qualifications. He was past chairman of the National Meat Inspection Committee for Canada; he co-chaired the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Food Safety Policy for Canada; he was previous vice-chairman of the Canadian Drinking Water Subcommittee - there was a question earlier about water and abattoirs; and he is currently serving on the Food Expert Advisory Committee for Health Canada.
Just to give you an idea - did you read off Ms. Wong-Petrie’s? No, okay. I apologize for arriving late. I was across the street in another committee, so today is my day. Ms. Wong-Petrie is, of course, one of our food safety analysts. She is, in effect, one of the few people in Canada who has a national certification as a public health inspector and a master’s degree in food safety. She has been working with us and has developed a lot of the training programs for our own staff and industry on food safety in both meat processing and in other areas.
We’ve had other provinces, in fact, review the work that she and Mike have done. Of course I don’t know if before I came there was a description of our provincial program, which we feel is probably the best in Canada. Some provinces do not have programs, others have partial programs. We really feel we’ve developed a superior model here. For a provincial program, we’ve got sort of the full-meal deal. These staff, among others, have developed that program so we’re quite proud of it. We feel we have well-qualified staff.
Now Mr. Horwich is 34 years in the game and of course you’re thinking that in only one more year he could be sitting on a beach or Florida or wherever. That’s true but we have other staff, we have four managers in total in the province, as well as other qualified staff. Of course if Mr. Horwich decides to take that little sojourn on the beach, which he hasn’t told me about yet, we will hire others to do the job.
Other provinces have looked at what we’ve done and they are quite interested. As Mr. Glavine knows, we have two provincial facilities which are being considered for federal upgrade. We are the only eastern province east of Quebec that is in such a scenario. We feel that a lot of that is due to the fact that we have this excellent system that Mike and his staff have built over the years.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, and not to cut you off, deputy, but I know that you could probably tell me all day long about the staff. Again, I appreciate and wanted to make sure that people were aware, for the record actually, of what exactly we did have at the table and the expertise that we do have, so that there is a feeling of confidence. The last thing you want to do, whether it is in this place or anywhere else, although there’s a report that comes out - some might say I don’t sound like a very good Opposition member but this is factual to me. This is about not scaring the heck out of everybody who is sitting home going oh God, there’s something wrong with the food in Nova Scotia because there isn’t.
We may not like what we have found, we may not be happy with policies and things not always necessarily being written down. That is important, there’s no question that quality assurance is just following up . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Your time has expired. Mr. MacKinnon, please.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Thank you very much, it’s great to have the department with us this morning. I wanted to zero in a bit more on the multi-barrier approach to risk management. I really like the analogy that you gave to us in relation to the track and the fences and the bacteria having to get over these respective hurdles and so on.
I assume that some of these barriers have been raised higher in recent years and there are probably more of them than there used to be. I’m wondering if we could delve into that perhaps a little bit more because you mentioned several of those barriers. I think the barriers, from what I understand, have gotten progressively higher and more of them.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Horwich.
MR. HORWICH: Thank you very much. Yes, that’s a good question. I think in our battle against bacteria, yes, that’s a good observation that the barriers have been raised. The barriers have been raised to a point that we are very comfortable in saying that we have a great system here in this province.
I think that one of the barriers I am particularly proud of and is, I won’t say quite unique to Nova Scotia, is fairly unique - our funding barrier. We have actually programs which have been established to support these rural meat plants in improving their facility through equipment and design and expansion of their plants themselves. What is unique in this region particularly, because it allows us, as a food safety person, to go in and say okay, there’s a problem.
In addition, we have a program in the Department of Agriculture that you may apply for that is going to help you address that problem. There are not a lot of regulators that can do that, and that is a significant piece.
Another barrier that I think you might be very interested in - and, Mr. Chairman, if I can ask that Ms. Wong-Petrie address this one - is our program that we are going to roll out on meat processing training, which we’ve done for our staff. This is the one that the deputy had mentioned that the other provinces are looking at, or we have been asked to explain to them and have Karen visit them.
MS. KAREN WONG-PETRIE: We do have the training available internally for staff right now, but we’re planning to roll that out to each individual meat processor within the province based on risk. We would concentrate on the higher risk food products or the ready-to-eat food items first and take the training to those facilities first. It would be a very specific training geared particularly towards the food commodities that they produce.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you for that. One of my favourite questions to departments is how do we compare with other jurisdictions? I think you’ve already touched on that and I think you said in a very confident manner that you believe it is a superior model. I’m wondering if you could perhaps talk about what’s happening in other provinces and perhaps a comparison with a couple of the states in the U.S.A. because often the Americans seem to profess to have one up on us in some areas and very often that is not the case and we are far ahead of them on several fronts. I wonder if you could perhaps elaborate a bit.
MR. HORWICH: I’m very pleased to answer that question. I think what I refer to as the Nova Scotia advantage has occurred here in our province, and that is a very strong linkage between our Department of Agriculture and our Department of Health and Wellness. Indeed, in the Department of Agriculture we have trained individuals, food safety specialists, public health inspectors and meat inspectors that work very closely together, so if there was an issue in a restaurant with some meat that we had to investigate, we have all in one unit. We don’t have to go across departments; we don’t have to find out whose jurisdiction it is. We have all in one unit; one division, one small group that knows each other, how to investigate that and get information right back. Now that is a key advantage and no other province in this country has that particular advantage.
We have what we refer to as a “pasture to the plate” model of food inspection and that is our superior model. Our friends in Fisheries tend to call it the “boat to the throat” approach. Some people in Newfoundland and Labrador call it “turbot to the toilet” but I don’t want to go there too much. (Laughter)
In the region there are three provinces that I would consider have good meat inspection systems provincially, and that’s ourselves, Ontario and Alberta, where we have qualified individuals, we have standards, and we have the authority to prevent public health issues from arising from meat plants. Ours, I believe, is much stronger in terms of our training. Our meat inspectors are the most well trained, non-veterinarian meat inspectors in the country. Typically they have a degree or a diploma in animal science. They have advanced food safety training. They have an international food safety certification from the National Environmental Health Association out of Boulder, Colorado. They also have advanced food safety as well. So we’re very pleased that we’re leaders in that particular area.
To turn to your question of the United States; yes, we always hear this “oh, we’re better than you” type of thing. Essentially there are two standards. There’s an international approach, which is our federal standard, and the United States also has a federal approach and we trade back and forth, meat moves across, but they also have state programs. Their state programs, some are better than others; like our provinces, some are better than others. I would be happy in an open challenge with any of the states to put our system up against theirs; I’m quite pleased with it. We have only bragging rights, I think.
MR. MACKINNON: There has been no case in Nova Scotia of a meat processing facility being implicated in food poisoning; the department states that. Is that, in fact, a truth?
MR. HORWICH: Yes.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you.
MR. HORWICH: If I may just add to that a little bit. Again, going to our seamless system between Health and Wellness, and Agriculture, we in the Department of Agriculture, the division that I work within, and the colleagues that I work with, are charged with investigating enteric disease and food poisonings. The staff that investigate those things report up through me and the staff also responsible for meat plants work with them, so we have all this information and that’s why we can say that. I think we’ve investigated - I believe it was in your package there - or probably interviewed 5,000 people who unfortunately have had food poisoning for various reasons. Of those interviews, none have ever implicated a Nova Scotia meat plant.
MR. MACKINNON: I think one of the comforts in Nova Scotia is the situation you have with the Department of Health and Wellness as well. I understand that there are a number of linkages that you do, in fact, have with the Department of Health and Wellness which should give us some comfort. Do you want to explain that a little bit?
MR. HORWICH: Sure. Mr. Chairman, if I may, I’ll ask Karen Wong-Petrie to address that question.
MS. WONG-PETRIE: Under the Health Protection Act the medical officer of health would organize an outbreak investigation team if it was determined that a complaint or an illness cluster were determined to be food-borne in nature. The food safety specialists associated with or covering that area, as well as Mike on many occasions, would sit on that outbreak investigation team.
In addition to that, when Mike was talking about the multi-barrier approach to food safety, surveillance is another one of those fences and the Canadian Network for Public Health Intelligence has a very strong surveillance network that our public health nurses, the medical officers of health, as well as the food safety specialists can feed into so that if there are any patterns that arise regarding illnesses, they can be connected. That’s very important when you’re looking at food-borne illnesses, where somebody may get ill while they’re travelling or it might be what looks like an isolated incident, but then the connections can be made in the pattern using this intelligence network.
MR. MACKINNON: In every Public Accounts Committee session that we have I always try to get a question or two in on Pictou County. I’m wondering, just using Harold Ferguson, perhaps, as an example of an operator the department would have interactions with, a person like Harold who is involved in processing, can you use him as an example of the interactions you would have and what a good job he’s doing, I hope?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, Harold Ferguson is a success story and his plant, Fergusons’s meat plant, in Bayfield. I first met Harold when he operated an uninspected facility. I don’t recall that he actually threw me out, but he asked me to leave at that point in time. After a few years he softened, I softened and we came to the conclusion that it might be in his best interest to come into our inspection program.
Harold has grown his business significantly because he has been on this inspection program; he is a tremendous supporter of the program. I talk to Harold frequently. He’ll complain the inspectors are too strict and then he’ll call me two months later and say do you know what? They did the right job. Harold is someone Pictou County can be proud of, I would say, and the business really supports “buy local” and it supports the livestock business not only in Pictou County but in the surrounding counties. Yes, you should be proud of Harold as well.
MR. MACKINNON: I think he is sort of a northern Nova Scotia example rather than a Pictou County example for sure.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, I would agree.
MR. MACKINNON: Just a couple of other questions, I’m sure my time is slipping away. Meat processing facilities were included in the audit, of course, how are you addressing the food safety risks in meat processing facilities?
MR. HORWICH: In food safety, I guess maybe if I could take a little education point, meat processing facilities are the more risky of the two: slaughter facilities or meat processing. Where meat processing has its higher risk level is in ready-to-eat meats. Ready-to-eat meats would be your deli meats, as you would call them, or your beef jerky or your pepperonis or something like that. The reason those meats are more risky is that there is no cooking step at home. When you take a burger, you can cook it at home; a steak, you can cook it at home. So we are focusing more on these ready-to-eat meats.
The program that Karen Wong-Petrie has put together is going to be rolled out to these ready-to-eat meat plants. Indeed, there were a couple that I believe made donairs that were included in the presentation, in the videos that are associated with this training program. We are rolling that out to these particular meat processing facilities and that’s how we are going to address the risk.
With this training program there are modules and tests at the end so it’s one way and a great way, through education, to address that risk because we can’t have someone there every minute. You’re not over everyone’s shoulder all the time so education is a significant piece on how we address the risk.
MR. MACKINNON: I think I probably have time for one more question because it could be a fairly long answer. I’m wondering if you could tell us, perhaps, the average day in the life of a meat inspector in Nova Scotia.
MR. HORWICH: Thank you. I’ll preface my remarks by saying they have a much harder day in the life than I do. They get up very early in the morning, most of the meat plants start around 7:00 a.m. Their schedule is such that the meat plants call and they advise when they are going to operate, so rain, shine, snow, whatever, our meat inspectors are there. The plants do not operate until the meat inspector gets there.
A day in the life is they will get into the plant, they’ll check over their paperwork in terms of what should be in the cooler. They’ll do a walk through the plant and see if there is anything out of place. If there is anything that is noticeably wrong, they would not let the meat plant operate, even start the day, until they were satisfied.
They may call, if there was an issue. For instance, sometimes they’ll get there - and in the winter this does happen - they will go to a plant and there will be no hot water because the lines are frozen. That plant doesn’t operate that day until the hot water is re-established.
They may go through the cooler. In the coolers in these meat plants we have carcasses, as you can imagine, and they are hung. There’s a record kept of carcasses that are being tested. There’s something called a held tag and if there are supposed to be five held tags on five carcasses, they make sure that those held tags are all there, that that one carcass wasn’t taken up and ground out and sent, because we’re doing tests at the lab, laboratory tests to determine whether that carcass can go and is fit for human consumption.
The meat inspectors themselves are responsible for witnessing all slaughter. They ensure that it is done in a humane fashion. This is very important, we take this very seriously. We have put on a training program specifically - again, this started in Nova Scotia - we have put on this training program based on - there’s a lady by the name of Temple Grandin and some of you may have heard of her; she’s an expert in animal welfare. This training program was based on her work and a lady by the name of Jane Morgan put this on for our staff. We were the first jurisdiction in the country to have this. Again, our neighbouring provinces have asked for this training. I have also sent our training module to Alberta and they responded and want to get in touch with the trainer. They ensure humane handling.
Also, before any animal is slaughtered there is something called an anti-mortem inspection and that is just before death they will go out and ensure that the animal is healthy. It is a key piece, particularly in this day and age of TSE - transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow as you would call it - to ensure that the animal is bright, it’s alive, it’s healthy, there’s nothing wrong with it. If there is something wrong with the animal, if the animal is sick it may be transmitting disease to another animal, so we may have to involve a veterinarian to provide a further diagnosis on the herd or on the animals. Any animal that does not meet that test of if it is healthy would be segregated, other animals may go through.
Each animal, after it is humanely slaughtered, is examined, this carcass is examined and all the organs and glands are examined. Our inspectors, I will tell you, are not veterinarians, but they are experts in normal. They know what a normal, healthy carcass looks like; they know what a normal, healthy liver looks like; and glands and every other aspect. If there is something abnormal the inspectors are charged with contacting a veterinarian to come in and do a further assessment on whatever portion it is.
Inspectors do have some leeway to condemn right away, there’s no question, if there’s serious bruising or there is an acknowledgement by the plant operator that yes, that liver is not acceptable or that carcass is worn down, that animal shouldn’t . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Unfortunately, time has expired. It was very interesting. The next session will be for 15 minutes. Mr. Glavine.
MR. GLAVINE: I thought maybe with that saga that was rolling out, you would miss that timeline, but anyway. I actually had written at the top of my page here, animal enters the plant and exactly what does take place in terms of visual observation and you’ve given us some of that.
Is there a blood analysis because in blood, pathogens and so on can be present in fact, but not necessarily be exhibited perhaps by the organs of the animal?
MR. HORWICH: Not necessarily. Again, our inspectors are experts in normal. Typically what is analyzed is if the inspector detects that there may be needle marks on it, which would indicate antibiotic injections, medicine, they would put a “held” tag, as I mentioned earlier, on that carcass and they would take a little piece of the diaphragm - I don’t want to get into too much detail here for those who may be a little squeamish, but they may take a little piece of the diaphragm and the injection site and they send it to our path lab in Truro. Our veterinary pathologists up there will look at that and they would examine it to determine if there is penicillin in that, if there is some other type of antibiotic in that. If there is, that carcass would be rejected and condemned. Any carcass that is questionable is either examined by a veterinarian or samples go to our lab for, again, veterinary analysis.
MR. GLAVINE: We have different sized provincially inspected plants. I know at the grower level they can do composting and so on of the animal, the offal and so forth and perhaps whole animal. I was wondering, what about an animal that isn’t considered suitable for human consumption? Is there a protocol at the provincially inspected plants as to what must happen to that animal?
MR. HORWICH: First of all, if that animal is at the provincial plant and is deemed unfit for human consumption, it doesn’t leave the farm; it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t throw it back in your truck and take it down to the next place that is uninspected or anything like that. It stays there and it is killed. It may be cut up after hours, not using - having the same equipment cut it up but you are not going to cut up a condemned animal and then cut up an animal that is fit for human consumption, with the same saw. There would have to be cleaning in-between, that type of thing.
That animal would go in either the compost or it would go in 45-gallon drums that are clearly marked “condemned”. Typically the chunks of meat that would be in there would be denatured. Denatured means pouring over a solution - typically it’s a chlorine-based solution. If somebody was going to go dumpster diving, they wouldn’t even want it.
Then that is taken, those barrels of condemned meat or offal, are picked up regularly. There is a company in Truro called Rothsay and they pick it up and they render it. That’s what happens to that poor, unfortunate carcass.
MR. GLAVINE: You did hit on an area that also occurs in our slaughterhouses, I think. That being a wild animal, a deer will come in to be slaughtered and cut up. Is that an okay process? How is that handled, in terms, I guess, of provincial inspection?
MR. HORWICH; There are two types of deer. There are domestic deer - we have deer farms, I think there are about seven. They are all accounted for, there is inventory and they come in, there are deer farmers in this particular province. They have fallow deer or red deer. I believe what you are talking about is our wild, whitetail deer. Yes, they are allowed to be cut up. Typically they are cut up after the domestic kill and they are segregated. When they go into the cooler, they are segregated by a piece of plastic or in a separate area within the cooler.
The equipment used to cut these up has to be thoroughly cleaned before the next day. That’s one of the activities - when you talk about the day in the life - that’s one of the activities that the inspector would go around and ensure the equipment is clean.
For the most part, our inspected plants are getting out of that particular aspect of their business. It’s messy, deer hair is not like the hide on cattle where it is tight and the hide and hair are very tight and there’s not a lot spread around. Deer hair is hollow, it flies as soon as you cut it and it goes everywhere and it is messy. Some of the meat plant operators are just tired of hearing our people say, you can’t start, you have to clean up - you have to clean more, clean more, that type of thing. So it’s a practice that is more dying in our provincial plants. There’s a need for it, obviously. They do a great job but it’s messy.
MR. GLAVINE: Okay, thank you very much, Mr. Horwich. I was wondering, do you have any thoughts and concerns around the fact that fortunately we’ve had a growth of the local farm market. Of course also entering that picture is an animal or a meat product butchered at the farm nearby. Is that permitted under the present guidelines for a farm market? Also, is there any kind of spot inspection?
When you talk about the four different kinds of levels and points along the way in which we can safeguard food safety, is there anything currently with farm markets that again the provincial Department of Agriculture would be taking steps to safeguard food safety there if, in fact, you do have that possibility of food processed on the farm, meat killed and so forth and available for purchase?
MR. HORWICH: Mr. Chairman, may I ask Karen Wong-Petrie to answer that question?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, Ms. Wong-Petrie.
MS. WONG-PETRIE: For uninspected meat, it is prohibited to sell that at a public market, at a farm market. We have a very detailed inspection program in place specifically for our public markets, so all of our vendors - ones that sell meat, others that sell other types of foods - they’re actually considered to be food establishment vendors and they’re inspected by our food safety specialists as such. So there is no uninspected meat at farmers markets or public markets.
MR. GLAVINE: I guess perhaps along the same line, only moving to our mainline retail stores. So everything goes well at the slaughterhouse and where the meat is packaged and processed; what about at the store level itself? We know that freezer temperatures or chilling components can change temperatures. Is there any inspection at that level or is it pretty well then into the hands of the customer to make the selection and hopefully they’ve purchased a perfectly good product?
MS. WONG-PETRIE: The retail food inspection component is covered by our food safety specialists, as well, under Mr. Horwich’s direction. Those inspections are conducted by certified public health inspectors so any food establishment that sells any potentially hazardous food such as meat also have that additional barrier of inspection at the retail level, and fridge and freezer temperatures and those specific aspects controlling food safety would be assessed.
MR. GLAVINE: We often hear that there really isn’t much of a significant difference between provincial and federal inspection, and in some ways I think there’s a connection between our beef industry perhaps in particular and the amount of beef that we produce, which of course has been going down for a number of reasons. Why is it then that we have provincially inspected meat and we can’t put it into our mainline stores? Why is that a reality piece that I know customers and citizens don’t seem to quite comprehend?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you for that question. Indeed there are a number of provincially inspected plants that do have their meat in the larger retail stores. These are more specialty meats than the main meats. I believe we’ve talked about that before. There is nothing legally preventing any of those stores from selling provincially inspected meats. It’s their store policy, I understand, so probably that question would be better directed to those directors at those stores.
MR. GLAVINE: I was just noticing a couple of the statistics there that when the Auditor General did his report, there were 28 slaughterhouses in the province; now we’re saying there are 26. Is that, in fact, the case that we’ve lost a couple of places that are provincially inspected? Also, have the number of inspectors stayed the same since the Auditor General’s Report was done?
MR. HORWICH: Yes, there are 26; one closed - I think there was one in Noel that closed and I can’t recall where the other one was, but yes, there were two that did close. They had either personal reasons or business reasons to close. There has been no change in the number of inspectors.
MR. GLAVINE: Do you know how much meat is inspected in a given year? In terms of trending in the province, is the demand on inspection actually increasing? Has it been going down? That would be a good place to kind of monitor a little bit, as well, what is taking place in our meat industry.
MR. HORWICH: Yes, I would say it’s trending upward. Take the beef industry, for instance, the cattle industry is very cyclical. We’re coming up to a higher point. There is a lot more beef going into our plants right now, cattle going in, and our plants are flourishing in that regard.
You’re right; the department has a tremendous spot to determine trending. Our group that does a lot of that work, in terms of economics and marketing, had done a study a couple of years ago, I think, on that. It’s an area of growth in this province, yes.
MR. GLAVINE: In terms of if somebody is looking at getting in the business of slaughtering, is there a template that must be followed before the first animal comes in? Do they apply for provincial inspection and then you give them a process that they must adhere to before they ever go into business?
MR. HORWICH: Absolutely. Typically there are two entry points. One is the individual who has an uninspected facility that is being encouraged by their clients to come into our inspection program. They’ll contact us - typically they know us anyway - and our senior meat inspector will go out and discuss it.
One of the key points - and it’s not particularly meat inspection, it’s more economics - is we always encourage people to do their business case. We don’t want to fund somebody, we don’t want to spend our time with someone who hasn’t done their homework. Their business case is very, very important. That’s why moving from an uninspected facility to an inspected facility provides an advantage, they already have that base of business.
We do have templates, there are specific templates if someone has no idea but typically if it’s an uninspected facility, you’re dealing with a situation, you’re dealing with a building. So we are very flexible.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Mr. Glavine’s time has expired. Thank you. Mr. MacMaster.
MR. ALLAN MACMASTER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I thank the guests here today at Public Accounts Committee. I guess before I start my questions the one message I would like to put out there is that the goal for me today is not to strike fear in consumers. There are a lot of people who enjoy consuming meat in the province and, of course, we have a lot of farmers who depend on the sale of meat to ensure that they make a living, and that’s important.
I guess it highlights the importance of making sure that the government is doing everything it can to ensure that meat is safe for people because it protects the integrity of that system. I guess hearing that, what message would you have for consumers today in this province?
MR. HORWICH: The message that I would have is use a meat thermometer. Consumers are the final barrier. Those barriers that we talked about, the messages: wash your hands, basic public health, those are the messages.
We’re doing a good job behind the scenes, I can tell them that, but when we investigate food-borne illness, typically it is as a result of improper food handling. There are cases where you get compromised time and temperature, that happens, but the further you go back to the areas of slaughter, the more barriers that bacteria had to jump. So if I had a message for the consumer, look after your piece; government looks after theirs, industry looks after theirs. Consumers, you have to be responsible. You have to know that when you buy your meat you don’t throw it on the back window of your car and drive around for four hours and then come home and try to cook it. There are some common-sense messages here.
MR. MACMASTER: Okay, thank you. What actions have you taken since the Auditor General’s Report, if you could kind of summarize them?
MR. HORWICH: I’ve taken a number of actions. One is to establish a committee internally to look at all of these recommendations - look at implementing all of these recommendations. Ms. Wong-Petrie is on that committee, as well as our senior meat inspector and one of our managers. They report up through me. We’re trying to be very vigilant on the timelines.
We established aggressive timelines on that report, like our goal of striving to achieve monthly audits, that’s a lofty goal, but when you’re searching for excellence and we’re searching for the best possible product, you want to set lofty goals. We’ve done that and we’re working toward that and are very committed to this process.
MR. MACMASTER: During Question Periods, immediately after the report was released, the minister assured us that meat was safe in Nova Scotia. Given that the audits and inspections were not being done, on what would the minister have based his answers?
MR. HORWICH: Not to speak for the minister, but the minister asked my opinion. I provided the minister with the opinion that we have a multiple-barrier approach, which I’ve explained already and as administrator of both the Meat Inspection Act and Part II of the Health Protection Act in this province, I suggested he could say that with great assurance.
MR. MACMASTER: Recently we had the escape of an inmate who was awaiting sentencing - I’m sure you’ve heard on the news - and it appears that the process was lax and that gentleman was able to break free out of a van and escape and it took hours to track him down. I think he eventually gave up because of the shackles he was in, but I guess it appeared to a lot of people and the public looking in that the process was lax.
People feel like they should be able to depend on government, especially when it comes to safety. In the case of meat inspection the Auditor General found that the inspection process was not adequate or well documented. Is there any problem with the organizational culture whereby those involved with inspections are being lax?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you for that question. The organizational culture is one that I am very proud of, it is a culture of continuous improvement; there is no issue with that. In terms of being lax, that is probably the very last word that I would ever associate with any of my staff in their activities, any of my staff in terms of their commitment to the program, or indeed the meat plant operators themselves.
To go back to your initial point about that gentleman who jumped out of the van, I would suggest that they didn’t have as many barriers as we did. The other point that I would say is food safety is a shared responsibility between government, industry and the consumer; we all have a role to play. We play our role in government very well.
MR. MACMASTER: It’s a tough question but I think it’s important to ask, frankly, so that people know the answer - at least your answer. With respect to management, you’ve just talked about the people doing the inspections. With respect to the managers of those people, what measures have you put in place to hold management accountable for an improved inspection process?
MR. HORWICH: We are a small group. There are two people, myself and the senior meat inspector, that would make up the management of the meat inspection process. He and I meet regularly and discuss regularly - indeed we spoke yesterday about some of the issues related to the Auditor General’s Report. We have a good association.
In addition to that, our senior meat inspector is part of our food safety management team, as well, so he gets to relate with the food protection managers who are out there regionally. It’s a small group and that works to our advantage.
MR. MACMASTER: Recently I had a chance to visit Composites Atlantic along the South Shore. They make airplane parts so you can imagine quality control is very important; otherwise, if there were airplanes falling out of the sky we’d have big problems and so would they. Of course food safety is very important for obvious reasons. They have a focus on documentation and accountability. Every step of the way is documented. Is the documentation process the backbone behind the solution to the Auditor General’s Report?
MR. HORWICH: I think the Auditor General’s Report contained two portions; one, process controls and the other was more administrative. Around the process controls, yes, I would agree and at this point I would ask Karen Wong-Petrie to explain documentation in terms of our HACCP program and in terms of HACCP generally.
MS. WONG-PETRIE: HACCP - Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point - is a food safety quality assurance, so it’s very specific to food safety assurance. We are moving our facilities toward having a HACCP plan specific for each facility. We’re not there yet. There are some things that we have to do to lead up to that, but the training component, which we spoke about a little bit earlier, will be the introductory component of putting that type of food safety assurance plan in place.
What that does is enables the facility operator to take process controls within their own facility and for us to audit those process controls. Documentation is a huge part of any HACCP system, so that’s what we’re moving toward.
MR. MACMASTER: I guess it would be hard to hold people accountable if there was nothing documented. For instance, if there was a deficiency and it wasn’t documented, it would be hard to go back and say, well, why didn’t they fix the deficiency or why didn’t the inspector go back to make sure that the deficiency they had highlighted has been corrected. Would that be the case?
MS. WONG-PETRIE: I don’t know if that was the issue in the Auditor General’s Report because he was able to take a look at some of those inspection reports to see the deficiencies highlighted. We do have a mechanism to capture those in AMANDA - the IT database program that we have - so it’s a matter of building some compliance states around that database component piece, but they are recorded during the inspection process.
MR. MACMASTER: One of the things the Auditor General mentioned was that the department needed to give the inspectors tools to deal with enforcement, more tools to deal with enforcement. Have you looked at new means of enforcement to hold food processing facilities accountable?
MR. HORWICH: Having been an inspector myself for many years and public health inspector, I can tell you that there are not enough enforcement tools for any inspector. Now as a manager, I look at things a little bit different. We have looked at various tools, but I really want to assure you that the inspectors are unfettered in their judgment. We do not go in and say, well, you can’t do this or you can’t do that. If an inspector says, here is an issue, we have to deal with it, typically the enforcement comes up through the senior inspector to myself and it is - some may describe it as a little bit draconian in terms of we could actually stop the slaughter; we can actually close the facilities; suspend the licences. The question is, if there is more of a minor issue, for instance there may be an issue of hair nets or something, that individuals aren’t wearing hair nets, is that worth the phone call to the administrator to close the facility? That’s the enforcement piece and the tool that I think we all are challenged with.
I typically would say, let’s use education. Let’s work with the individual and if they’re not catching on, we can take those more drastic measures. Typically when there are a number of areas that we would like addressed that the operator, for one reason or another - whether it’s economic or health or whatever it may be - isn’t addressing in a timely fashion, we would bring them in for a hearing. The hearing may be, please provide us with an explanation, we’ve said these five things and you’ve only done two of them, what’s the issue here? Other hearings are: listen, we’ve said five things, I’m tuning you up right here, right now. There are different tools that we use and different approaches that we use and I’m very comfortable in talking about the education piece and asking them questions and I’m extremely comfortable in tuning someone up too.
MR. MACMASTER: I can appreciate that. I would expect most slaughterhouses would be in favour of solid regulations anyway because it helps protect their industry. It’s good to hear that you kind of work with them and it’s not just heavy-handedness maybe that would be - which I think is kind of what you’re saying; you wouldn’t make the call to shut down the plant if somebody wasn’t wearing a hairnet for instance. So keeping that in mind, have you asked slaughterhouses and other processing facilities for their ideas on how best to conduct inspections and ensure meat safety? I know it might seem like a bit of a conflict of interest, but I think really the two of you are on the same side of the table so why not work a little bit together. The question again is have you asked them for their ideas?
MR. HORWICH: That is an excellent question and I can’t agree more. We’re all on the same side and as I go back to what I said earlier, food safety is a shared responsibility between industry, government and the consumer. Yes, we’re all on the same side, the enemy is the bacteria. So have we specifically asked them? No. Do we get inundated with suggestions on how you can do your job better? All of the time, and we take those into consideration and they come up through. Sometimes I’ll get calls directly on the phone: so and so is calling. For instance, a gentleman asked about Harold Ferguson a little while ago, and Harold is not shy, he’ll come out and tell you: I think you should do this or this would help, whether it’s the safety or the efficiency within the plant. When we do our consultation, yes, we will be specifically asking that question.
MR. MACMASTER: That’s good because I was going to ask you would you consider going out and asking them because I think it would be helpful, so it’s good to hear that.
I guess something else that comes to mind, maybe this would come through consultation, but are there regulations that could be removed to make compliance easier for food processing facilities and also to produce the end product, being safe meat?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Your time has expired. Mr. Ramey.
MR. GARY RAMEY: Thanks again for coming in, I have been listening with interest. I just have one question and then I’ll turn it over to my colleagues here. Mine is along the same vein, I guess, as my colleague, Mr. MacKinnon, who asked a question about Ferguson’s in his part of the province. Mine is sort of specific to my area, I have a meat plant in the area run by Jon Lowe, Lowe’s Meat in Lunenburg County. I have heard positive things about Mr. Lowe’s operation over the years, but I was wondering, could you just briefly comment on that operation and also how the changes that you’ve talked about today - and we’ve talked about a lot of things that are being done - how those changes would affect a plant like Mr. Lowe’s?
MR. HORWICH: Like Harold Ferguson, I met Jon Lowe before he was an inspected facility. One of the tasks I was charged with about eight or nine years ago was to go around the province and do a consultation on meat inspection. I think it was in Wileville, there was a community hall up there and I visited Wileville. There were about 200 people in the room to hear about the government’s new regulation on meat inspection. About 199 of them were ready to throw the rope up over the rafters for me, it was an interesting evening.
Probably the last person to leave there was Jon Lowe and he came up to me and said look, I’m really interested in what you had to say. We worked probably for three or four years and he slowly built his business. The senior meat inspector has dealt with Mr. Lowe and he has developed a fine business there. There have been a couple of other businesses on the South Shore that have gone out of business and like any ecological niche, someone has to fill a void and Jon has taken advantage of that. He does a tremendous job there and he was one of the subjects of this audit, too, and does good work.
MR. RAMEY: So these regulations, as we tighten them up, how specifically do they affect a somewhat smaller operation like his?
MR. HORWICH: Well I’m not sure I’d characterize the regulations as tightening up as much as I would characterize them as being more appropriate to the situation. We plan to use a legislative or regulatory approach of an Act, a regulation and a code, similar to what we have in our food safety system.
We already have the Act, it’s a great Act. I must say I wouldn’t even suggest any changes. That Act is the envy of many jurisdictions. The regulations will be outcome-based regulations. They will say that at the end of the day this is what we want to see, that type of thing. There are some specifics in it but there will be generally outcome regulations.
Where the specifics come in are development of a code or a guidance document for our inspectors and for the meat plants on how to meet the regulations. This is what we do with our restaurants and our grocers, it’s tremendous work. With that code, I think a lot of the Auditor General’s concerns will be addressed as well.
There will be no negative impact that I can even foresee on our existing meat plants with a change of a regulation. Indeed, it might even be a little more positive for them. But again, we have to go through that consultation piece, Mr. Ramey.
MR. RAMEY: Thank you very much and I’ll turn it over now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Skabar.
MR. BRIAN SKABAR: Thanks very much. I believe you touched on this before, the difference between federal inspection and a provincial inspection. Now here’s where I’m going with this, I’ll kind of put this in a bit of context. I represent Cumberland County so we’re right on the New Brunswick border and if I understand correctly, albeit ours, yours are the best or second to none, in terms of inspection, in the country, perhaps the continent for that matter, what does it take to be able to get the federal inspection stamp on that, just so we could send across the border to New Brunswick?
MR. HORWICH: Thank you for that question. That has been a question for a number of jurisdictions; we, ourselves, are particularly interested in that answer. There have been three initiatives over the last 12 years that the provinces have got together with the federal government to ask, how will we change the standards to get really good meat? I can ship meat from, for instance, John Dickie’s plant in West Leicester, I can take meat from his plant and I can ship it to Sydney or ship it to Yarmouth - 300 miles in each direction - but I can’t move that 15 miles or 35 miles over to Sackville, New Brunswick. How come?
This is one of the questions we want to know. If it is safe to eat 300 miles away, how come it isn’t 25 miles away? Well it certainly is safe to eat 25 miles away. The complexity is that we are in a globalized world and other countries have arrangements with our country that set a standard for international trade, and that international trade is also the standard for interprovincial trade. So it’s not a matter of just saying to the federal government well, it’s safe here, it should be safe there. There is no national standard.
We’ve had three attempts at developing a national standard where the provinces could recognize provincial, we could recognize a system of another province and we could trade with that system. There are complexities around transport and who is going to look after it, there are complexities with our trading partners because of standards, something called national treatment. Our trade agreement is that if any country has a standard that they can trade between provinces or states, that becomes the federal or international standard as well. So if we let New Brunswick or if we let Nova Scotia and Ontario trade meat together, that means that we might get meat shipped from Maine, which isn’t federally inspected, or Iowa or somewhere else.
That is the complexity. It is more jurisdiction, trade and economics than food safety. It’s a difficult question to answer. The last attempt at trying has been just recently and instead of developing a national system, the federal government said, all right, we’re going to put money toward meat plants in the provinces so they can upgrade to the federal standards so they can trade. That’s where we are right now and there are two plants in our province that are taking advantage of that.
MR. LAFLECHE: I think that question is interesting because, as Mr. Horwich said, we recently had a raging national debate, if you will, between the ministers and Canadian Food Inspection Agency on this whole issue. As Mr. Horwich suggested, I think the goal of the federal minister and certainly several provincial ministers was to allow interprovincial transport of provincially inspected meat. It didn’t work out that way at the end of the day for many reasons beyond me and probably beyond the ministers involved, but we do have a system in place where we will hopefully have an opportunity to upgrade some provincial plans with the federal funding. If that all works out, we will have an increased access to the other provinces for our beef producers - and sheep producers too - through this other alternative. We’re hopeful that’s a step towards that.
To get back to an earlier question of Mr. Glavine, this interprovincial issue is also a reason the major chains have expressed to us that they have issues. Here in the Maritimes we have two main retailers. One has a warehouse in Debert and the other has a warehouse in Moncton, and they serve the three Maritime Provinces. They want those warehouses to be interprovincial or federal, if you will. They cannot have product go in that cannot be transported across a border, so the reason they have great difficulty sourcing locally would be - at least this is what they tell us - that they don’t want meat going in there that cannot be transported to their stores across the Maritimes because that warehouse serves the Maritimes. Nor do they want a mistake to be made where provincial meat gets in one of the warehouses - either the New Brunswick one or the Nova Scotia one - and then somehow accidentally moves across a provincial border causing an incident and, as Mr. Horwich said, it may not be a safety incident, it may be an incident for legalities. That is a constraint on the system that I know our minister is very focused on and he would like to have something improve there, but it’s a complex problem that I know that several governments in Mr. Horwich’s time have wrestled with. We’ve made a little progress, but we’re not where we feel we need to be yet.
In Ontario and Quebec, the warehouse, if you will, is in the province. So it’s in the Province of Quebec, or it’s in the Province of Ontario, so the provincial inspection system feeds into a warehouse, which does not have to ship across a border. That is a very different situation from the one in the Maritimes. Our smaller population, our smaller geography and our inter-connectedness results in a different system, which presents challenges under the international agreements that we have. So a long answer to a very good question by Mr. Glavine and yourself.
MR. SKABAR: Thank you. If there was an appetite between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to get together with the same system, I guess federal regulations would prevent that. Now I can understand where it would be less of an issue in Quebec because they have an economy scale - likewise Ontario - but there is certainly not a critical mass of consumerism in the whole Maritimes to compare with either of those. If the Province of New Brunswick decided to contract to you the inspection, it would still be the Province of New Brunswick inspection even though the same regulations applied, the same standards, the same everything. Our hands are tied until we get the federal buy-in on that, is that the case then?
MR. LEFLECHE: I’ll let Mr. Horwich answer the second part of the question, but I just wanted to make a point that even through we’re small and have these problems in the Maritimes, one of the driving forces behind the changes recently was actually out West with some of the larger provinces because they have slaughter houses right on a border much like Dickie’s; they have the same problems. So it is a problem even for the Western provinces. They have a very large cattle industry and if they have a slaughterhouse right on a border, that slaughterhouse - what is the town that borders, is it Lloydminster that is in both Saskatchewan and Alberta? - you’ve got an issue right there. You can’t even serve the community of Lloydminster if you have provincial inspection, so it’s an issue that is very, very complex and vexing for many jurisdictions. I’ll let Mr. Horwich answer the second part.
MR. HORWICH: It’s a trade issue, it’s not a food safety issue. This issue is not unique to Canada, there are many states in the United States who want to trade back and forth and they have the identical problem as we do - not as specific maybe as Lloydminster, but where there are meat plants that don’t have a critical mass, they could grow their business if they could ship to the adjacent states and they can’t do it either. Provinces and states have that same problem, it’s just trade, it’s not food safety.
MR. SKABAR: Just to change tracks totally, with regard to the . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Unfortunately your time has expired. We’re very disappointed you didn’t get your question in.
I wonder if Mr. LaFleche would like to make any final comments?
MR. LAFLECHE: I would just like to say thank you for a great opportunity because I think whenever you shine a light on a specific area, like the Auditor General did, it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to come in here and put some of our side of the facts on the public record. I think you’ve done a great job with questions.
I would like to thank my staff here. I know Weldon Myers didn’t get to speak, he’s the guy in charge of the numbers. There was a number question, but Mike Horwich took it. So I would like to thank all the staff and thank you for your questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Spicer, do you have any comments from the Auditor General’s Office?
MR. TERRY SPICER: No.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I would like to thank you very much for the reassurance we have on food safety that has been brought to us today and the fine work that the department is conducting and the incredible staff that you have working there. On behalf of the committee, I would again like to thank you and you’re welcome to stay for the rest of our committee proceedings, but I don’t think you’d find them very interesting. So thank you again.
We will now move to committee proceedings. The members have been provided with some information that we have and the first thing I want to tackle on the information we have is that there’s an issue with the April 25th meeting of the committee. It was overtime costs for nursing staff at the Capital Health District and unfortunately, it looks like there may be a strike. I’d like to get permission of the committee to reschedule that toward the end of May and I’ll leave that to the discretion of the clerk to arrange that, if that’s all right. Would that be appropriate? Okay, thank you. (Interruption) Hopefully there isn’t a strike, but the people from the department indicated they may not be able to attend the meeting, so we’d like to have time to reschedule that. So that one is easy enough to do.
Now the other thing we have is that the subcommittee met and there were a couple of issues discussed at that meeting, one of them I think would be an interesting discussion. That one is, Mr. d’Entremont moved a motion and it was passed by the committee to bring to the full committee, regarding an emergency meeting to discuss the Ships Start Here campaign. I would like to open the discussion on that. Mr. d’Entremont.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D’ENTREMONT: Thank you very much and I apologize for not being here a little earlier today in response to this one. Just simply as we’ve been trying to shed some light on the $303,000 Ships Start Here contract, of course we tried to run it through a regular committee, we brought it forward to the subcommittee. The subcommittee decided that they would want to forward it back to the main committee. I’m thinking we’re sort of at a point here where we should have another vote - knowing full well what the outcome will be, that the NDP members of this committee will probably vote it down - to bring this issue before us. As we say, that there are taxpayers’ dollars that were spent here.
There’s a number of questions that the citizens of the province are asking us about. Procurement rules apparently were fixed or adjusted in order to fit. We think they were broken and we’d like to have a discussion with some people who were involved in this. Again, I think we need to have a vote and move on because I’m pretty much done with being pushed into an infinite loop of not having this issue addressed as it should be here at the PAC.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Epstein.
MR. HOWARD EPSTEIN: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. My colleague is correct, that we won’t be supporting the proposal. May I ask, however, if the Chair could clarify the nature of the motion before we vote, so I think both the Opposition members and the government members of the committee will know whether to vote Yea or Nay. I’m not clear whether we’re going to be voting to adopt the recommendation of the subcommittee or to adopt the recommendation of the subcommittee with this one exception.
If we could have a clear motion, then I think everyone will know whether to vote Yea or Nay. Once the motion is cleared, then as a matter of respect to my colleague who is bringing the proposal, I will briefly outline our reasons for our votes.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, Mr. d’Entremont.
MR. D’ENTREMONT: Thank you very much. Ultimately the original request was to have Mr. Black and Mr. MacKenzie come before the committee to answer questions on the Ships Start Here and their involvement in it, and maybe to answer some more questions about the program itself. So the motion is to bring Mr. Black and Mr. MacKenzie before the committee to answer questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Epstein.
MR. EPSTEIN: Well thank you. Just before the vote then, I will offer reasons for voting against it. In fact I’ve read the letter of my colleague and it seems to me that the issue is not anywhere near reaching the level of what he characterized it as being; he called it an emergency special meeting. I don’t see that we should pre-empt the normal work of this committee for this particular item.
Second, however, the essence of the matter, which is the administrative choice of single-sourcing a contract in circumstances requiring a quick turnaround really doesn’t warrant the attention of this committee for two hours or really at all.
The last point I would make is that the insistent focus on calling as witnesses two staffers from the Premier’s Office rather than NSBI officials, which is really where the decision was made, just indicates that the proposal is not so much about scrutinizing value for money as it’s much more about going on a big political fishing expedition. I know we’re getting into fishing season but this isn’t my idea of what it’s going to be, so we will vote against the proposal. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Any further discussion? Will all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is defeated.
The next item on our agenda is the approval by the committee of the items that the subcommittee approved for discussion for our next set of meetings. Okay we have several meetings that were suggested by the subcommittee and you have the list in front of you. There’s one bit of information I have, the meeting with the CIO regarding disaster preparedness. The deputy minister cannot attend, but they will be sending Ms. Holly Fancy, Chief Information Officer, if that’s okay. That’s the only thing that I’m aware of there that would be different than the deputy minister coming. With that in mind, if there are no amendments or anything I would entertain a motion to adopt the schedule. Mr. Epstein.
MR. EPSTEIN: So moved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
The next thing we have on our list here, we’re going to have a subcommittee meeting on April 4th, which we will set more time for further meetings to reschedule. I was just checking with the clerk, too, we don’t have it on the agenda here - how late in the year would be the wish of the committee? I would like to see the committee meet until maybe mid-June. Does the committee agree with that if we can set enough presenters before we go into a summer break? Would that be satisfactory with the committee just to give us some guidelines on the subcommittee that we don’t overbook or underbook. That would be satisfactory?
Okay, is there anything else? I think we’ve got everything here. I think we’ve covered everything on the agenda. Are there any other items that members would like to bring? A motion to adjourn would be in order.
MR. EPSTEIN: So moved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We are adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 10:57 a.m.]