Health Canada in response to industry lobbying orchestrated a “detect and correct” media campaign to promote a regulatory change, say Access To Information memos. The propaganda blitz included confidential emails to unnamed friends who were to pose as “trusted experts” in providing reporters with helpful statements.
“If the gun isn’t smoking, it’s pretty hot,” said Cathy Holtslander, director of research and policy for the National Farmers Union of Saskatoon. “This is not the role of a regulator. The regulator should not be supporting a specific agenda.”
The Department of Health last February 21 approved the sale of irradiated ground beef. The Canadian Cattleman’s Association had lobbied since 1998 for amendments to Food And Drug Regulations to sell hamburger irradiated to kill bacteria and parasites.
In memos, Health Canada staff wrote they felt pressured by industry to amend regulations, and orchestrated a media campaign to bolster public support for the initiative. “Beef industry stakeholders have voiced concerns to the department over the lack of progress,” staff wrote in a 2015 memo Strengthening Food Safety In Canada: Authorizing The Use Of Irradiation For Treatment Of Fresh And Frozen Raw Ground Beef.
“Recognizing the potential for public and stakeholder reaction, Health Canada developed a proactive and reactive outreach and communications approach in support of advancement towards permitting the sale of irradiated fresh and frozen raw ground beef,” said the memo. The campaign included “proactive media outreach with both traditional and social media (to) ‘detect and correct’ as needed.”
Michael Masotti, senior advisor to the department’s director general of issues management, in a series of confidential emails said staff lined up “trusted experts” to parrot phrases promoting the benefits of irradiated beef. “In the past, media interest on food irradiation triggered by department initiatives was largely focused on safety concerns,” wrote Masotti; “This proposal should be expected to generate media attention.”
“Trusted experts from academia, industry and consumer or public health groups have been identified and will be called upon to issue public statements of support,” wrote Masotti. The department worked up a “preliminary list of high-profile supporters we could bring in” to contact reporters “should the announcement lead to some information disseminated by media, or voicing of concerns on the safety of irradiation.”
Won’t Name Names
Health Canada yesterday would not release the names of unofficial spokespeople who were to pose as trusted experts. Masotti did not reply to an interview request.
“There is supposed to be a regulatory process,” said the Farmers Union’s Holtslander. “Going beyond that to get spokespeople to take a position – that just seems to be interference.”
The Department of Agriculture in a 2014 in-house survey found little public support for treating hamburger with radiation to kill bacteria from cattle feces. Just over a third of Canadians surveyed, 39 percent, said they would purchase irradiated beef if it was properly labeled, according to the Ipsos Reid research Consumer Protection Of Foods.
“We have not heard anyone, any farmer or consumer, ask for irradiated beef,” said Holtslander. “The department should be protecting the public, not protecting private interests.”
Amendments under the Food And Drugs Act were supported by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, Beef Farmers of Ontario and the Canadian Meat Council. A total 17,000 people signed an online petition against beef irradiation.
The Farmers Union in its submission noted the practice is not allowed in the European Union or Japan, and appeared to be a “mop up operation to compensate for unsanitary conditions and inadequate procedures” at packing houses that allow ground beef to be contaminated with fecal matter. “It was the meat industry, not consumers or retailers, who asked for it,” the Union wrote in an August 15, 2016 submission to the health department.
Memos showed Health Canada gave early notice of the regulatory change to individuals it considered friendly – a “confidential heads-up”, wrote staff — to help “proactive communication by you in support of the irradiation proposal.”
By Tom Korski