Speaker Andrew Scheer agreed to a call by NDP and Liberal MPs for a special debate on the massive recall of tainted beef from an Alberta packing plant operated by XL Foods.
The government's critics wasted no time in pointing the finger of blame directly at the Conservatives, who have insisted in recent days that forthcoming new legislation will help to buttress Canadian food safety measures.
Liberal MP Frank Valeriote said it's too little, too late.
"Hiding behind the imaginary facade of new enhanced powers should not let anyone off the hook for this blatant failure to act," Valeriote said.
Valeriote called on the government to order a third-party audit of the resources the Canadian Food Inspection Agency needs to do its job.
"We have some of the finest inspectors in the world, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resources, leaving them incapable of performing necessary functions of their jobs. Clearly we have seen that the industry, while it can work in partnership, can no longer be left to police itself."
E. coli was first detected at the XL plant in Brooks, Alta., on Sept. 4, but it wasn't until 12 days later that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency began recalling some of its beef products.
Since then, several more alerts have been issued, recalling more than 1,500 XL products across Canada and in the United States. The agency temporarily shut down the plant last Friday.
Opposition MPs have been hammering away at the government all week over its handling of the situation, billed as the largest food recall in Canadian history.
They claim government funding cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have made the problem worse.
The government, meanwhile, insists it has actually increased the number of food inspectors and strengthened protections.
Pierre Lemieux, the parliamentary secretary to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, defended the government by listing what he called the facts of the government's response to the outbreak.
"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on Sept. 4, and they've been acting ever since," Lemieux said.
"The XL plant will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified that it is safe."
Lemieux also repeated the government's line that it has hired some 700 "additional, net new" inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors, and that it has increased the agency's budget by $156 million, a 20 per cent increase.
House of Commons rules limit emergency debates to important matters requiring urgent consideration, making them relatively uncommon.
Earlier, during question period, the government endured another grilling from the opposition benches — specifically on why it took the CFIA so long to alert Canadian consumers, and the standards the agency uses to ensure Canada's food supply is safe.
"There are not even clear standards for when meat should be discarded if the risk of contamination is too high — no standards," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the CFIA as a "highly regarded agency internationally" that took the necessary steps based on the information it had.
Liberal MP Ralph Goodale called on Harper to amend the government's forthcoming food safety legislation, Bill S-11, by requiring an audit of practices and procedures to be conducted by the federal auditor general.
Harper countered by pointing out there was a delay in the agency receiving critical information from XL Foods. Bill S-11, he said, would help ensure the agency has the power to obtain such information.
"Under Bill S-11, the CFIA would get increased power to get that kind of paperwork for the company; that is precisely why it is needed," Harper said.
Of course, the auditor general has powers to look at a whole range of government agencies, but we do not direct the work of the auditor general."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae assailed Ritz during Wednesday's debate for his performance during a news conference in Calgary after touring the XL Foods plant.
"He speaks for four and a half minutes, leaves the stage, says, 'I'm sorry, I've got to go,' and then as soon as the president of the CFIA stands up to speak, the government spokesperson says, 'Sorry, we're shutting this down now,'" Rae said.
"That is cowardice. How else would you describe a minister who can't defend himself in the House of Commons, goes out to Alberta for a photo op, and he can't even defend himself at the photo op? Something has gone clearly wrong here."
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