Thursday, April 28, 2011

Surprise! Suprise!

I hear via an employee of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that this blog's editorial about the lack of surprise inspections has prompted a superior to notify staff that from now on, they are to stop giving egg-grading stations advance notice of inspections, including audits to determine compliance with HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) protocols.

Now, I hope the CFIA adds to that another directive to stop providing egg farmers with advance notice of audits of their premises. And the Egg Farmers of Ontario marketing board might even catch on and conduct some random and surprise inspections to determine compliance with its regulations, including bird counts for quota control.

The egg board might also conduct a few random and surprise inspections to determine whether eggs produced and marketed under its eggs-for-processing program are all moving to breaking plants and into the industrial-eggs market. There is obviously a huge temptation to move some of those eggs into the higher-priced table market, so it would seem prudent to instill a degree of fear of being caught cheating.

Gray Ridge squeezes competitors

Bill Gray of L.H. Gray and Sons Ltd. faced accusations 11 years ago that he used inferior-quality eggs to squeeze out grading-station competitors, judging by testimony before a committee of the Ontario legislature. Those accusations bear a striking similarity to current claims by Svante Lind of Best Choice Eggs that Gray supplied his business with inferior-quality eggs.

A reader directed me to a transcript of hearings the Ontario legislature's Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills held in Sault Ste. Marie on March 7, 2000.

Rene Robert told how he bought an egg business near Temiskaming in October, 1997, and ran a grading station to supply local stores. He claims the customers were happy, particularly to be buying fresh eggs from a local producer.

But "Gray Ridge and Sons Ltd. kept moving into our territories and cutting our necks in the stores and making deals with franchisors to keep us off the shelves," he testified. That would be big supermarket chains with local franchises, such as IGA and Red and White, and would be the local impact of deals that Gray and the Hudson family, which owns Burnbrae Farms Ltd., make to be exclusive suppliers to big chains. Together Gray and Hudson account for more than 90 per cent market share in Ontario.

Robert folded his egg-grading business, but made a deal to have My-T-Fresh of Iron Bridge grade and package his eggs so he could continue to supply some local stores.

Then Gray bought My-T-Fresh and shut down its grading station. Then Robert's eggs were trucked to Gray's grading stations in Southwestern Ontario, but the eggs that came back in his cartons were lousy.

"We were receiving rotten eggs in our containers, Robert testified. He soon lost his customers.

Robert said what Gray did was unfair to him as an egg producer and "customers are getting cheated as well." Instead of fresh, locally-produced eggs, their only choice  became less fresh eggs from grading stations hundreds of kilometres away.

Gray has company lawyers busy countering allegations by Svante Linde of Sweda Farms Ltd. and Best Choice Eggs that he employed similar tactics to try to drive him out of  business. In this case, Lind is claiming that in response to his request to import eggs from the U.S., the Egg Farmers of Ontario marketing board and Gray and Burnbrae conspired to fill his needs, but they sent him inferior-quality eggs. Gray, Burnbrae and the egg board deny the allegations; the courts may eventually rule, providing there is no out-of-court settlement that includes a provision that the terms of the settlement be kept a deep, dark secret.

Court dates for egg issues postponed

The key court cases pending on the Ontario egg-industry scandals have been changed from May 10 to June 10.

When that day comes in Superior Court for the Durham Region, held in Oshawa, the day is to begin with two L.H. Gray and Sons Ltd. moves to cite whistleblower Norman Bourdeau for contempt of court.

Next up will by the Svante Lind/Sweda Farms Ltd./Best Choice Eggs, motion to consolidate three lawsuits it has filed against L.H. Gray and Sons Ltd. (now known as Grayridge), Burnbrae Farms Ltd. and Egg Farmers of Ontario. Lawyer Don Good of Ottawa will soon be filing a motherlode of affidavits and a set of new pleadings.

And finally the court will get to the issue of whether, and how much, of the electronic information Bourdeau took from L.H. Gray and Sons Ltd. will be allowed as evidence in the lawsuits. That information is currently under court protection.

The judge has ruled on motions the egg companies and egg board made, asking that their court costs be paid by Lind. The judge said Burnbrae and the egg board will get nothing, but that Gray is entitled to $83,000. Lind is expected to appeal that award.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who handles your meat?

I was thoroughly disgusted today as I listened to meat inspectors testify during a semi-judicial hearing about conditions at Innerkip Specialty Meats Ltd. during 2009.

Don Murray bought the plant and obtained a provincial licence to open Jan. 9, 2009. Within two weeks, it was clear that he was in over his head and things were going to pot.

One piece of cooling equipment failed within a few weeks and the other unit was not sufficient to bring the cooler down to the maximum allowable four degrees Celsius. Yet the plant continued to run.

Then there were problems with the scalder, there were failures to bring chlorination levels to standard in the plant water, knife sanitizers failed, sanitation went from bad to worse and inspector Mike Tilford said he was operating like a "baby sitter" trying to coach plant managers and staff to bring things up to snuff.

He said often Murray simply walked away when he was being told about regulatory requirements, refused to answer his telephone and drove off. The inspection staff often threw up their hands and simply walked off the place, effectively shutting it down until Murray could bring it up to some minimum level of compliance.

The hearing was, incredibly, to hear an appeal from Murray to have his licence restored after it had been repeatedly suspended and eventually cancelled.

inspectors testified that Murray brought sick, injured and diseased pigs to the plant and many had to be condemned and euthanized. He tried to sneak dirty and abcessed hog carcasses past inspectors into the cooler. He tried to truck away carcasses that were lying on a dirty and bloody floor of the truck.

He threatened to 'kill himself' and to 'execute somebody" when he was confronted with violations of regulations. Drabble said she fears for her safety and that of any staff she supervises, so would not enter any plant that Murray ever owns or operates. Tilford said he would go back, but only if he had another inspector "so we could watch each other's back."

In the end, Murray conceded he's not going to regain his business, but pleaded to have the facility licensed so Egon Spreitzer, who is an investor, can run the plant.

Spreitzer, however, has a litany of run-ins with public health inspectors in the Waterloo Region, eventually resulting in a Superior Court order in December, 2009, shuttering his retail butcher shop.

So, my question is, how do these characters ever get the right to continue handling our food for months and sometimes for years after it's obvious that they have little or no regard for regulations and standards?

Sadly, Murray and Spreizer are far from the first here in Ontario who have flouted regulations. They have butchered and marketed deadstock, they have made a business of dealing in downers and "suspect" animals and have run them through plants that have been persistently in violation of standards and regulations. We have had owners with connections to organized crime. We have had beef packers who lied about grades and cheated on weights. We have had a meat packer who was under RCMP surveillance and one of his creditors under RCMP protection, yet he continued to slaughter cattle and market beef.

As I have often asked the people in charge of meat inspection, what does it take to put these characters out of business?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Deregulation on steroids

Politicians are fond of saying they favour deregulation, but often are thwarted by civil servants who have all kinds of reasons why they ought not to lose their jobs and power.

This is surely the case with at least three areas of federal regulation of products farmers use- livestock medicines, pesticides and genetically-modified crops.

In all three cases, there are full-blown bureaucracies in Canada, the United States and Europe basically reviewing exactly the same research and company data to come to decisions. Often those decisions are identical, but just as often Canada lags behind others in granting approvals. That leaves our farmers - and our public - behind in the adoption of new technology which is often safer and more effective than the older products. This is especially true for pesticides.

Why not simply accept United States decisions as the Canadian standard? Anything approved in the U.S. could be automatically approved for sale in Canada; anything restricted or banned could also automatically be restricted or banned in Canada. In fact, restrictions and bans already apply to anything Canadians want to export to the U.S., so in practice the U.S. dictates terms to Canadian farmers and businesses.

Canada could keep our researchers busy, but focused on issues of particular concern to Canadians. Canadians could have considerable impact in all three regulatory areas by presenting their research and arguments to U.S. regulators - in fact, more impact than they have now.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for the politicians who win this election to implement this proposal as a deficit-fighting approach to deregulation.  But it sure would make sense to a lot of Canadian farmers and businessmen, and the consuming public would probably be even better safe-guarded than they are now.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What's wrong with GMO alfalfa?

The self-righteous organic movement got under my skin again today when I read a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the movement’s opposition to the marketing of genetically-modified alfalfa.

Nowhere does the article say why the organic movement is opposed to genetically-modified crops.  I have yet to find the movement offering any reason based in fact.

The organic movement relies on anecdotes from the faithful to promote its products. I have no doubt that fields farmed organically and including hay and pastures in rotation will differ from fields that have been no-till farmed to grow only corn, soybeans and wheat.   That, however, does not constitute reasonable grounds to reject commercial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.

None of the claims that organic products are better from a food safety or human nutrition basis can be substantiated. Again, the evidence is anecdotal, offered by true believers.

I recall a time when the North American organic movement was seriously debating whether it ought, or ought not, to allow genetically-modified crops.  And I recall an American leader of the movement, speaking at an organic conference at the University of Guelph, arguing that the genetic approach to improving crops was safe, effective and beneficial for farmers and the public.

The decision to ban genetically-modified crops from the organic movement was made largely on the basis that key patents were held by large, multi-national corporations such as Monsanto.   Big and commercial was painted as the enemy of small and organic.

This is a phony basis for rejecting a beneficial idea, technology or product.  It’s what philosophers call an “ad hominem” argument where the attack is on the person, not the idea.

Where was the organic movement’s outrage when the first genetically-modified alfalfa was developed by a plant breeder at the University of Guelph? I haven’t heard a peep from them about that alfalfa’s enhanced ability to survive winters. 

The organic movement strikes me as an unreasonable sect of zealots.

Monday, April 18, 2011

McGill gains food safety chair

The so-called leaders in Canadian agriculture and food research have flubbed again, judging by the announcement that McGill University will become home to Canada’s first academic chair in food safety.

The leaders chose the University of Guelph to be home to their plans for a synergistic national centre for food safety research. The federal government moved researchers from the Ottawa area and stations across Canada to Guelph. The provincial government added support.

But now McGill has stolen their thunder with support from Kellogg’s and Nestlé to bolster a gift of $1.5 million from Ian and Jayne Cantox to fund creation of the chair.

And why, pray tell, has there not been a chair in food safety at the University of Guelph?  And why do Canadians still need to traipse down to the United States for university training in food safety? For that matter, why have agriculture and food programs gone into decline at the University of Guelph and why is the Ontario Agricultural College suffering greater percentage cuts than any of the university’s other colleges?

You can ask, but don’t expect any apologies or changes of direction from the people in charge.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inspections lack surprise

If you’re speeding and get warning that there’s a policeman with radar over the hill, you slow down to the speed limit.  You’re not caught and disciplined, so you probably continue to speed.

There appear to be lots of warnings for egg farmers and grading stations that the enforcers are coming, so few are caught and disciplined.

Take egg quota violations, for example. Egg Farmers of Ontario checks hen numbers when the birds are 23 weeks old. Farmers know when an inspector is coming. If they’re over the limit, they naturally cull their flock to get under the wire. But until then, they could be housing more hens to make more profit.

Take egg grading stations. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency sends advisories that it is coming to check compliance, often a couple of weeks in advance. There may be some merit to advance warning so the company can have its HACCP records ready for inspection, but there is certainly no merit when it comes to checking day-to-day sanitation practices and automated egg grading.

Some retail chains have hired the Guelph Food Technology Centre to conduct audits for them.  In these cases, too, there has been advance warning.  I am told that signs have gone up in at least one plant to advise staff to practice “zero tolerance” on those days.

The federal and provincial governments have granted egg farmers extraordinary powers over production and pricing, but in return have asked them to provide the public with a steady supply of safe and wholesome eggs.  Egg farmers who value supply management and want to retain public trust surely realize that discipline is crucial, especially related to food safety. 

The management at Egg Farmers of Ontario is surely aware of the possibility that some members cheat on production limits, so why not have some more surprise inspections?  The management is obviously aware now of allegations that cracks have made it into the Grade A table market, posing a risk to food safety, so what has it done? 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gray's lawyers want an apology

Lawyers for L.H. Gray & Son Ltd. are fighting back against what’s been posted on this blog.

In a nutshell, they argue that the court actions surrounding the electronic files that whistleblower Norman Bourdeau took from Gray are not about trying to hide those documents, but about trying to get a return of anything the courts won’t need to deal with lawsuits filed by Swedea Farms Ltd.

They say they obtained a court order in Oshawa to have all of the files returned, barring a motion from Swedea or others to seek further directions from the court, and they say so far no such motion has been brought. True. But the case is due for the next court appearance May 10. We shall see what the judge has to say then.

Gray’s lawyers have a lot of additional things to say about my blog, complaining that I have used innuendo to suggest that they are trying to “unlawfully and unethically hide documents” and to object to my saying Gray is spending a small fortune in legal fees to try to shut down Bourdeau. 

I’m sorry they feel that way. I am only trying to report what I have found in court documents, many of them filed by the very same lawyers who are now complaining, and to let you know what’s happening in some of the many ongoing court appearances.

As with normal news reporting, I don’t include everything that’s said and done. I try to highlight what I think will interest you, the reader, and that’s not necessarily what pleases L.H. Gray and Sons and its lawyers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Egg petition circulating

TORONTO – The Egg Farmers of Ontario marketing board held two closed-door sessions before and after its annual meeting here recently.

Only quota holders were allowed in for the discussions which included briefings about scandals emerging from court documents in Superior Court in London and Durham Region in Oshawa.

Quota holders also got a package of information from people interested in getting this information to them and asking them to petition the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission to conduct an inquiry.
Egg board chair Carolynne Griffith

Former egg producer Melisssa Snyder is urging egg farmers to press for reforms at the egg board and for a commission inquiry because she says that even if some of the allegations in the court documents prove true, the integrity of Ontario’s egg industry is at risk.

“It’s time for the egg producers to take control of their future. If they don’t, the levies they pay are bound to go up to pay for all the legal costs of the lawsuits that the board chooses to fight, even though the general manager says these lawsuits aren’t going to cost anything.” (see last paragraph below)
Snyder notes that the egg board was presented with an opportunity to be dropped from lawsuits being pressed by lawyer Donald Good of Ottawa on behalf of Svante Lind of Best Choice Eggs of Blackstock.
What she does not reveal is that Lind wants the dismissal of board general manager Harry Pelissero as part of that deal.
The egg board has countered in a letter to all quota holders that it “will continue to vigorously defend itself and its staff.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for L.H. Gray and Son Ltd. have until April 5 to show a judge in Oshawa a list of documents provided by whistleblower Norman Bourdeau that they want returned to them. The information is under the protection of a court-appointed supervisor pending the outcome of legal moves to include, and counter-moves to exclude, the evidence.
Egg board GM Harry Pelissero

In a court hearing in Oshawa in March, Gray’s lawyers persuaded a judge to lift an Anton Piller action by Good to get Bourdeau’s files which are from Gray when he was head of information technology for the oompany.
The judge did lift the Anton Piller action, but also set the April 5 deadline to determine what documentation will be allowed into the court case. The decision makes little difference to the key aim of Gray’s lawyers to hide the information, but it does tag Lind with the costs the lawyers for Gray, Burnbrae Farms Ltd. and the Egg Farmers of Ontario is dealing with the Anton Piller motion.
Gray’s lawyers claim about $85,000, Burnbrae’s about $58,000 and the egg board about $10,000. Those claims will likely be challenged by Lind.