House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 15, 2011. (Reuters/CHRIS WATTIE)
OTTAWA - MPs held an emergency debate Wednesday night on Canada's meat contamination calamity but the federal agriculture minister was not present.
Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer accepted an opposition proposal calling for a debate on food safety in the wake of the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was unable attend because he flew to Ottawa Wednesday following a press conference on the tainted meat issue in Calgary.
Ritz's office said opposition parties were invited to a "technical briefing" Wednesday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) but that offer was not accepted.
Emergency debates in the Commons can be requested by any MP to discuss a "specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration."
Opposition parties have hammered the government all week because they believe the feds should have ensured operations at XL Foods, the Alberta plant at the centre of the recall, were suspended sooner.
The NDP and Liberals also said funding cuts to the CFIA are at the root of the problem.
During the debate, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae criticized Ritz for cutting his Calgary press conference short. He also took aim at Ritz's spokesperson who cut off CFIA's president while he was speaking to media.
During Wednesday's question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the CFIA "operates according to the authorities vested in law and according to the information at its disposal."
"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for these matters. It is a highly regarded agency internationally," Harper said. "The position of CFIA is that the plant will remain closed until such time as its operations can be assured to be safe."
But NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Ritz is missing in action and demanded the minister take questions from MPs in the House.
Ritz has not been in the Commons since the beef recall expanded over the weekend, but he held a news conference Wednesday at a CFIA laboratory.
"It is not just one plant Canadians are worried about, it is all of them," Mulcair said.