ITQ is off to the Chateau Laurier this morning to stake out a good seat to await the release of what we are, somewhat stubbornly, going to continue to refer to as the Weatherill Report, which will reveal the results of “a six-month investigation into a tragedy that cost 22 Canadians their lives”, and which – depending on which draft of the media advisory you read – was either an “outbreak” or a “preventable incident”.
We can get a preview — an teensy weensy preview, but a preview, nonetheless — via CTV News, which “obtained” (don’t you love that word?) the “key points” from the Embargo Fairy last night:
Among the key recommendations: food companies must report all public health threats to the government, and federal inspection reports should be published. […]
Other recommendations in the report include:
- Meat plants must report any public safety threats to the government, not just those stemming from positive bacteria tests.
- Manufacturers must design meat processing equipment that is easy to clean and will limit the spread of bacteria.
- Canada’s chief public health officer must take the lead in any future cases of food-borne illness, lessening any potential political diversions.
- Provinces need to follow more strict safety rules.
- Ottawa should review the training of federal inspectors, in addition to reviewing inspection resources.
Since this is Inside The Queensway, after all, and not Inside The Meat Packing Plant or Picnics Weekly, ITQ will likely be focusing her attention on findings and recommendations related to ministerial actions and responsibilities — that bit about “lessening any potential political diversions” intrigues us particularly — although as is her sacred duty as a liveblogger, she will, of course, cover the entire press conference as it transpires, albeit with none of her usual gripings about sandwiches. Well, not many, anyway.
Oh, and it turns out, there is a half-hour pre-release lockup-ish thing after all, although I’m not sure how many of my gallery colleagues realize that’s the case, since neither the original advisory nor the revised version made reference to it; it only shows up in the CNW release. I know that sounds like a whiny nitpick, but honestly, it does change the dynamics of a press conference when the people asking questions have actually had the chance to at least do a quick scan of the report, so I was glad to see the late addition to the schedule.
Anyway, check back at 11am for all the action!
Okay, so — apparently, this is a real, official, give-us-the-BlackBerry-and-nobody-gets-hurt lockup which means that ITQ must now choose between sacrificing her sneak preview of the report, or entering — The Liveblogging-Free Zone. (Insert Tales From The Darkside theme here.) After mulling over the options before her — and a conversation with the obliging media registrar — she went with the former, which means you won’t get any particular insight from here on the innards of the report until *after* the official release at 11:00am. What can I say — the vision of reporters mobbing the Holder of the Berries as the newser was getting underway, and a quick assessment of the likelihood that I’d be able to elbow my way to the front of the line was enough to make my choice for me. Hope y’all appreciate.
So far, it’s a fairly good turnout — not quite as many reporters as I’d expected, although that may be partly due to the confusion over the pre-release peek. No sandwiches, alas — or even meat-laced muffins.
I would just like to note that ITQ is respecting both the letter and the spirit of the embargo, and hasn’t even peeked at the report, despite the fact that she’s sitting one seat over from a reporter furiously perusing its depths. I’m not sure if I’m wild about the main cover graphic, by the way — no, that’s not cheating; it’s the same one as on the inquiry website. It reminds me of one of those unsettling Discovery Channel documentaries where they show you the millions of microscopic creepy crawling too-many-legged creatures that live IN THE FOLDS OF EVEN AN OTHERWISE PRISTINE WASHCLOTH! Then again, I guess that’s kind of the point, right? Danger lurks in the meaty heart of even the most succulently Dagwood-pleasing sandwich.
By the way, ITQ is not the only one here who decided to keep her berry. That makes her feel much better about her choice.
And here we go! You’d think they’d be handing out copies of the report while the press conference was going on, but — no. Anyway, enough grousing; it’s time for Sheila Weatherill to take the stage, which she’s just done, with a brief introduction that sounds remarkably like an extended version of the first press release.
Oh, and this report is dedicated to the people who were affected by the outbreak, which is a nice gesture. Also, they have received “excellent solutions” from various experts and advisors, and — wow, she really likes to remind us how many pages of documents she analysed, huh? Having covered the Oliphant Inquiry, all I can say is she ain’t seen *nothing*.
The first thing she learned – there are no easy answers. Well, that’s not surprising. Last year’s outbreak was a rare and complex event, and the situation was made more complicated by the many jurisdictional layers. She learned that if people had known differently, or what they knew now, the outcome might have been different, but — well, hindsight 20/20. Also, listeriosis is unique amongst bacteria, is widespread around us — ‘It’s in your kitchens!’ – which is why management is so difficult.
Last summer’s outbreak was *not* handled perfectly, according to Weatherill. It “evaded” the best efforts of both Maple Leaf and the government to contain it, and 80% of those affected were in long-term care facilities, or other institutions. There had been evidence of contamination “months earlier”, but no obligation to report, and once the outbreak had gone public, nobody really understood the protocol for handling it. Also, policy guidelines were “vague”.
Simple, clear information about the risks was not properly communicated to anyone — not health professionals, and not the general public — but that, at least, seems to have improved in the interim, according to Weatherill.
Okay, 57 recommendations — which, she says, will both protect Canadians *and* strengthen the industry, while allowing us to be “proactive”. Not that this is a criticism, but she sure does like her buzzwords.
Okay, that’s all for Weatherill, now we’re hearing from — an unidentified (at least to ITQ) woman, who will now … read the entire statement in French.
On the plus side, that gave me time to scamper over to get my own copy of the report, which I’m now leafing through. One thing that strikes me as odd — remember, I’m looking at the political angle here — is that she apparently only interviewed a handful of ministerial staffers – a single, tiny handful, in fact, since the list appears to consist of Alan Sakach, formerly Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s dcomm, now a media advisor at PMO, and — Jenni Byrne, also of PMO, where she directs the issues management unit. Oh, and the two relevant ministers — Ritz and Clement – as well as Carol Swann at the CFIA, and a few PCO types.
Okay, the unnamed Francophone is finishing up her non-simultaneous interpretation, so I’d best pay attention to what’s going on, since we’re onto questions. Yay, questions! That’s where we get answers!
First up, Bob Fife — the man can get to a microphone faster than any human should be able to do so — who asks why she didn’t make any findings of criminal or civil liability, given, you know, all the death. Wasn’t that explicitly outside her mandate? Anyway, she says that there was “not one single contributing event”, but “many factors.” Fife brings up the tainted meat slicer, and wonders what happened to it. Is it still slicing meat? Does he mean the actual slicer, or that model? It’s not clear, but Weatherill says that according to Maple Leaf, that slicer has been taken apart, put back together and … moved to Saskatchewan. So, uh, let that be a lesson to it.
Anyway, after a few “but is it safe?”s from Fife, she tells us that CFIA has found it acceptable for use. Just — only in Saskatchewan? I’m sorry, that was just *weird*.
Aha, someone brings up the press release, and how the paragraph about how there was no political interference was deleted from the second version; she goes back to the “brevity” line — it was just a “simple error”, and was done to match the French version — and repeats the basic point, which is that there was not, in fact, any interference. She was totally independent. So — why not change the French version to match the English? Honestly, I’m willing to believe that this really was an innocent mistake, but really — so, so badly bungled.
Meanwhile, a reporter I don’t recognize is sounding awfully sceptical about her failure to find out how many people work for CFIA, and what they do, given the access that she had. Weatherill doesn’t really answer the question, but goes back to one of the main recommendations — more training, and “third party expertise”.
Moving on, the CBC’s James Fitz-morris wonders why people who were at risk – the elderly, infants, immune-compromised – especially those who were in care of health institutions – were eating these products anyway, and wonders why they didn’t get the message that this was a bad idea. “Should a long-care health facility be serving bologna sandwiches to patients,” Fitz-Morris wonders. The answer is — not actually a direct response to the question; Weatherill seems to suggest that there are other ways to approach the issue. Like not serving bologna sandwiches? It’s not clear.
Weatherill is definitely more comfortable talking about the specifics of her report, and recommendations, and less so in veering out into tangential matters. Which, again, isn’t a criticism — I’m sure she’s very mindful of the effect it could have on the coverage.
A question about how the minister – Ritz, that is – handled the situation, particularly from a communications perspective; Weatherill notes that they found that Canadians want to hear from a health expert, not necessarily the minister. The report recommends that the chief public health officer take that role, but she admits that this is, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. It does sound like she’s suggesting that Health take the lead next time.
The Toronto Star’s Joanna Smith asks about political interference, and whether there was any evidence thereof, and Weatherill points out that anything she found is in the report, but reminds her that her priority was investigating how the outbreak was handled.
CP’s Steve Rennie can’t quite get past the bit where even Weatherill was unable to find out how many inspectors there are — which seems like a pretty big black hole, as far as her findings, I have to agree — and she gives the same answer as she did to the earlier question. He then earns himself an ITQ Medal of Honour by asking whether PCO or PMO were involved in the communications plan that she found was too slow, and — oh, once again, Weatherill isn’t really answering the question. Yes, PCO was one of the many organizations involved, but — and back to her recommendations.
Rennie tries again, and gets a slightly less oblique answer: She discovered that PCO does, indeed, consider it to be its role to coordinate communications when there are multiple departments involved. Yes, but what about PMO? Apparently, the answer to that particular question will remain elusive, at least for now.
A question from CityTV’s Jennifer Hall on what the families told her, and once again, it seems that communicating the risks was the main priority. Also, difficulty in diagnosis — for some families, it took too long to confirm.
Also, Canadians headed to the grocery store to buy cold cuts for a picnic should feel safe, although honestly, she doesn’t really give us any particular reason *why*, although she has repeated several times that these outbreaks are rare, so presumably, one should always feel *fairly* safe doing so.
Le Devoir’s Manon Cornellier wonders about food safety investigations, and whether these should be done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Weatherill’s French Co-Panelist – who seems to be named Cecile – repeats that no one is to blame in terms of public health – but there does need to be more coordination between the “partners”, to improve the balance between public health and food safety. Wait, those are actually complementary, not competing, so “balance” isn’t what is required, really.
Bob Fife *really* can’t get past the lack of any findings of civil or criminal liability. People died! Again, does *any* inquiry actually have the mandate to do that? Unfortunately for his clip, her ansswer doesn’t change. She was asked to prepare a report, and she did.
And – that’s all, apparently, at least til 1pm, when it’s off to cover Gerry Ritz’s response. See you back here then!