Cheol Joon Baek
Testing individual samples of meat has become meaningless in factories that routinely mix tissues from many suppliers.
Michael McCain has wrongly accepted all the blame for the illnesses and deaths traced to listeria-infected cold cuts from his Maple Leaf packing plants.
Though Maple Leaf followed rigorous safety standards, McCain said in late August shortly after his company's products were linked to the crisis, "It's our best efforts that failed, not the regulators or the Canadian food safety system."
In a rare display of a captain willing to go down with the ship, he said, "I absolutely do not believe that this is a failure of the Canadian food system or the regulators."
The regulators seem to agree. Most have been quick to praise their own actions in tracking the outbreak and responding to it, without identifying government's first responsibility to set regulations preventing such breakdowns.
"Being able to recognize [signs of an outbreak] and then do things that limit that impact - that's really where the system can kick in," Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, told the TV program Canada AM.
Denying the occurrence of deep-seated failures of public health standards of communication, transparency, regulation and governance is apparently at the heart of managing public distress and fears aroused by the listeria crisis.
No one in power wants to go to the meat of the matter: the unquestioned and unchallenged standing of cheap meat as the cornerstone of Canada's $20.5 billion a year food and agriculture system.
In a society unprecedented in human history where three square meals of meat a day is the expectation for people at all income levels, a casual approach to public information about meat has become the norm.
That's a big problem.
The public right to know is all-important when it comes to food, since individual shoppers, cooks and eaters are unsupervised when they make a wide range of crucial decisions.
But meat is a perfect host for a wide range of uninvited, unwanted bacterial and viral guests and contaminants. Yet the government and food safety system do little to protect the individual's access to information about meat.
We mustn't let it be thought that meat is a risky business, or that consumers need to remain alert and make careful choices that carry serious consequences.
I've never seen signs of proactive warnings or educational posters and leaflets in doctors' offices or hospitals - let alone on meat counters or on the products themselves - warning pregnant moms, seniors or frail people to avoid packaged cold cuts or "wet" sandwich meats unless they're reheated at boiling temperature.
Health Canada's website has posted a caution to this effect since 2005, but the general public is much less aware of the hazards associated with deli meats than it is with those connected with smoking or drinking booze during pregnancy.
Nor is it common knowledge among workers in institutions serving the needs of the elderly, the ill and others most vulnerable to infectious disease.
Information gathered by government inspectors in meat plants - tests of swabs from meat or equipment, for example - are never made available to the public that pays for the gathering of this information.
In the midst of the PR crisis around unsafe meat, the union of government meat inspectors protested the Conservatives' decision in March 2008 to reorganize inspectors' workloads in ways that keeps them mired in busywork and paperwork instead of out on the plant floor where they can take frequent test samples and keep a nose out for mishaps.
Though the Conservatives turned this deregulatory crank a notch, the approach itself is at best 20 years out of date.
The rise of paperwork- and lab-based meat inspections coincided with the North American Free Trade Agreement, when a continent-wide system run by centralized and global processors and retailers became the norm for meat production and sales.
Testing individual samples of meat became impossible and meaningless in factories that routinely mix tissue from many animals from many suppliers and locations, and where the fast and furious speed of the assembly line prohibits old-fashioned poke-and-sniff methods by inspectors or careful handling by workers.
Postmodern inspection systems are based on testing procedures and work environments, not the product itself. As McCain argued, testing individual meat samples is like "finding a needle in a haystack."
The system known as HACCP - Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or, as critics call it, Have Another Cup of Coffee and Pray - has been the norm since mass-production factories with poorly paid and non-union workers became part of the recipe for cheap meat.
Several leading food safety analysts - and a number of disease outbreaks - confirm that the HACCP system is inadequate.
But a better inspection system can only work in a more expensive, slower, decentralized production system.
Inspections would need to be slower and more expensive. If principles of equity and health were followed, the costs of inspection would be passed on to people who choose to eat meat, not taxpayers, so the real price of safe meat would become transparent, and healthier alternatives to meat would have more price appeal.
"We need to relocalize the food system so we're not facing national outbreaks of this scale," argues Dr. Lorna Medd, an outspoken chief medical officer of health on Vancouver Island.
Aside from food safety problems, this system produces health problems associated with over-consumption of animal fat.
The alternative is irradiated meat, a possibility the Conservatives have already raised - the next wild goose chase in search of low-cost meat.