I had a root canal done halfway through writing this article. The dentist put on a video while the work went on, and I barely felt any pain. Such is the power of distraction. It made me think about the power of social distraction and a Conservative premier who wants to inspect immigrants to make sure they're not criminals and to inspect newlyweds to make sure they're not the same sex, but who for some reason can't get it up for inspecting food, which is one of the things he's actually elected to do.
It's taken Ontario Conservatives eight years to turn the clock back almost a century in terms of public health. Ontario hasn't seen practices leading to outbreaks of contagious and food-borne disease such as Walkerton's E. coli tragedy, the SARS outbreak and now the closure of the Aylmer meat plant since the ragtime days of the turn of the 19th century, when solutions to prevent typhoid from bad water and tuberculosis from bad milk were implemented.
There's no excuse related to the complications of modern life for this historical regression. Sloppiness, stupidity and irresponsibility, not newfangled chemicals, electronics or superbugs, are the problem.
As the details of the Aylmer meat scandal leak out, we learn from a cabinet document that the ministry itself estimated 8,000 people would become ill from food-borne disease last year and a dozen would die, mostly due to poor hygiene, improper handling and contaminated equipment.
The degradation of the safety inspector function is, embarrassing to recount, crucial to what went wrong. Embarrassing because it wasn't that long ago, about the time the Conservatives were elected in 1995, that avant-garde health and safety advocates, much like neo-conservatives, mocked inspection as end-of-the-line, sniff-and-poke, not proactive. Let's get on to the next generation of chronic health issues and stop obsessing about yesterday's stale safety issues, people like me thought. But we didn't know what was to come. Soon, there were tax cuts, financed in part by cutting back meat inspection from a force of 100 trained staff with job security to 10 full-timers and 90 contract workers.
Wholesale deregulation has a few dimensions. Saving money on enforcement, the crudest form, requires the absence of full-cost accounting, any awareness that piddly savings from the costs of labour bills for inspectors could end up, as the cabinet document of 2002 pointed out, costing the health system $200 million a year for treatment of food-borne disease. Another is regard for the professional commitment involved in jobs like those of inspectors, who are too easily scorned by Tory politicians as slackers in cushy civil service jobs.
Third is the need for full-time staff who have access to a union to back them when they blow the whistle if the government doesn't pay heed. The drastic decline in government whistle-blowers over the last eight years - especially sad for me to watch, because I was responsible for the care and handling of whistle-blowers when I was assistant to the president of the Ontario Public Service - is an important indicator of deregulation.
Other factors allowed deregulation to proceed rapidly and with little resistance. One is the federal situation, whereby the Canadian Food Inspection Agency watches over 13 acts and 32 sets of regulations, making it incapable of decisive action. The lack of firm regs on downers (see below) is just one example. The CFIA, like most food regulatory bodies, is beset by a number of interest groups - the least of them consumer health advocates - that must be included and addressed.
Then there's the concept of "social regulation', a concept I picked up from Donald Stull's and Michael Broadway's magnificent study Slaughterhouse Blues. Meat-packing that used to be done in big cities like Chicago and Toronto by well-paid workers with strong unions and access to major media is now done in small towns by unorganized workforces with no means to go public about wrongdoing.
That's been coupled with huge changes in consumer habits that have occurred at the same time. There have been major increases in the consumption of meat - up 58.3 per cent in developed countries since 1960. And consumers expect meat, which used to be a semi-luxury item, to be cheap. They also expect it to be ready to hoover. The fastest-growing food category in the meat section in the late 1990s, Stull and Broadway tell us, was "fist food,' highly processed, highly packaged meats that have had many encounters with germs and handlers.
And consumers don't seem to be asking questions, which adds consumer apathy to the deregulatory trend, exactly the opposite of what's needed. Some of the costs of these ill-considered changes are coming home to roost as people pay for their food by staring into the toilet bowl woofing their cookies. It's this full syndrome of deregulation that will finally be put to plebiscite in the election two weeks from now.