CANADA - The Canadian government has been accused of putting consumers at risk by sweeping cuts to the food inspection agency budget.
The trade union representing the food inspectors, the Agriculture Union, said that according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency forecasts, the government plans to cut spending on food safety by 21 per cent or C$78 million by 2016–17.
The union says that this will translate to staff cuts of 16.5 per cent, or 548 positions and it adds that as a result, CFIA is facing a critical inspector shortage.
“With available resources, the only way the CFIA can meet American inspection standards in order to maintain access to the US market is to short change inspection of meat for Canadian consumers. It’s that simple,” said Bob Kingston, President of the food inspectors union.
However, the government has hit back at the claims.
A statement from the CFIA said: “Through the work of the CFIA, the Agency is committed to protecting the health and safety of Canadians.
“First and foremost, food safety is the top priority for CFIA and since 2008 the Agency's overall spending has increased significantly because of increased investments in food safety programmes.
“CFIA field inspection staff has grown by 19 per cent since 2007, though the number of Field Inspection Staff can fluctuate due to changes in demand for service, such as opening and closures of federally registered establishments. As a result, the Agency's complement of Field Inspection Staff may vary throughout the year by as much as five per cent or 150 to 200 field inspection staff.”
The CFIA added that it is a science-based agency that takes a modern, risk-based, outcome based approach to all its activities, operating with the first priority to be food safety.
And it said that its inspection work focuses on areas of highest risk first, the areas of focus may change during the year based on emergencies and shifting priorities.
“As these decisions are made, the effective delivery of the CFIA's food safety programmes and the overall health and safety of our food system is always top of mind,” the CFIA said.
“There may be some differences in the inspection procedures of each country, the meat inspection systems of both the US and Canada are similar and both countries have earned reputations as world leaders in food safety. It is important to note that differences in inspection procedures are trade related but not food safety related. In fact, the Conference Board of Canada rates Canada's food safety system number one out of 17 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
“The CFIA has increased its focus on prevention, preparedness and response to minimise risks to human, animal and ecosystem health. The Agency is undertaking a series of major initiatives focused on legislative, regulatory and inspection renewal and modernization. These initiatives will allow the Agency to deliver inspections more efficiently, achieve greater industry compliance with food safety requirements and better protect consumers.”
However, the Agriculture Union has raised particular concerns over cuts in the inspection systems and the number of inspectors in Northern Alberta.
It says that the inspectors had been told to cut sanitation inspections by 50 per cent and pre-operation inspections by 30 per cent.
And the union raised concerns that this could lead to another food poisoning outbreak similar to the one involving meat processor \Maple Leaf where 22 people died from Listeria.
The union said that in Northern Alberta, 12 out of 18 meat hygiene inspection positions are currently filled and new hiring has been frozen and training has been deferred.
“After Maple Leaf, CFIA tightened verification of meat production facilities’ sanitation because Sheila Weatherill found lingering contamination was a factor contributing to the disaster. To deal with its financial crisis, the CFIA is now starting to roll back those measures,” said Mr Kingston.
“The government may have forgotten the lessons of the Maple Leaf tragedy, but Canadians have not,” said Marianne Hladun, the Prairie Regional Executive Vice-President for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
The Canadian government denied that there was an increased food safety tisk in Northern Alberta.
“The Agriculture Union representing the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) inspectorate is unnecessarily undermining Canadians' confidence in their food safety system,” said Dr B.A. (Bruce) Archibald, President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Kelvin Mathuik, Area Director General, Western Operations of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency
“Claims that food safety activities have been cut in Northern Alberta are false.
“The CFIA is proud of the Conference Board of Canada rating Canada's food safety system number 1 out of 17 OECD countries including the United States.
“Differences in meat inspection systems between the US and Canada are related to trade standards - not food safety. These include additional activities that certify labelling and meat cut classifications.”
They added that the agency's overall spending had increased significantly.
They said the government had invested over C$517 million in various food safety initiatives, since 2008. More recently, in Budget 2014, they said the government had provided C$153.6 million over five years to strengthen the CFIA's preventive food safety oversight programmes.
“The Agriculture Union is aware that the number of Field Inspection Staff in regions fluctuates due to changes in demand for service and the nature of inspection work focusing on areas of highest risk which can include regional emergencies and enforcement action,” they said.