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Sat, 20 Oct 2012 01:15:00 GMT | By Deirdre McMurdy, MSN Money

The hypocrisy of foreign ownership rules

The innate hypocrisy of the deals surrounding XL Foods and Hudson’s Bay Company reflects a great deal about Canada and Canadians.

With countries, as it is with people, you pretty much know what to expect when you look at yourself in a mirror. It’s an image you’ve seen many times before. And mostly, you understand there are good days and, well, less good days to gaze at your own reflection.

That said, every once in a while, you get startled by self-scrutiny — and it’s seldom a positive surprise. Turns out you’ve somehow managed to ignore some lump, bump or blemish that’s suddenly impossible to overlook.

And so it is with those of us who are convinced that deals putting Canadian companies into foreign hands require some serious review and discussion before proceeding. If they proceed at all.  Two recently proposed business transactions have revealed a huge vein of unflattering hypocrisy.

Start with the news that a Brazilian-controlled company, JBS, is taking over the operations of E.coli-plagued Alberta meat packer XL Foods. XL is the second-largest meat packer in Canada and the final terms of a sale will be set after six months have passed.

Everyone is expressing delight — and no small amount of relief — that a foreign-owned outfit few of us have ever heard of is stepping into the breach and tackling the egregious problems at XL.

Given that 2,200 direct jobs are hanging in the balance, the Alberta government has declared it a positive step forward. The federal government has welcomed the “private business decision.” And the union representing XL’s workers has embraced the Brazilian solution as well.

In other words, we’re all hunky-dory with unexamined foreign takeovers when we’ve made a total hash of things ourselves and need to be rescued. If things are ticking over and there’s a prospect of future profit and gain, we’re much fussier.

That’s human nature for you, but it’s also inconsistent and unfair and, therefore, not a defensible principle or position.

Issues related to food and the integrity of our food supply are viscerally emotional for people. It’s one of the reasons why agriculture has remained one of the few remaining areas where government subsidies and trade barriers have endured. And politically, protecting the supply and safety of food is a high priority — or it should be.

So, if the owners of XL Foods hadn’t allowed standards and operations in their plants to degenerate to the point where its tainted beef products poisoned people in 20 countries, we’d all be howling about the fact that a bunch of Brazilians were seizing control of a world-class Canadian exporter and employer.

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