Canadian meat inspection inadequate: USDA

Minister Ritz has failed to deliver promised new investments for food safety

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
15 March, 2010

Ottawa – Canada has been quietly called out for inadequate inspection of meat processing plants by the US Food and Drug Administration which has demanded that Canada increase its inspection frequency in order to meet US safety standards and continue to have access to US markets, according to internal Canadian Food Inspection Agency documents.

The food inspectors union released the text of an internal staff memo today which discusses the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency’s approach to the additional USDA safety requirements.

According to the memo, “…the CFIA will be providing additional inspection coverage… to better meet the USDA’s technical requirements for products exported to the US.”

But because of a lack of resources, CFIA has been unable to hire new inspectors to comply with US safety requirements.  At the moment, the CFIA is meeting the US regulator’s safety standards by scheduling overtime among the existing inspectorate, an approach that is not sustainable.

The CFIA memo says “the Agency will need to hire additional inspection staff” but notes that “the CFIA continues to explore funding options as we refine how we deliver these food safety enhancements.  In the short term we will be looking to our current inspection staff to work hours in addition to their regularly scheduled shifts.”

“Unless the government makes new investments in food safety, the CFIA will face a choice: ignore the USDA’s demands and risk losing access to the US market for Canadian processed meat products, or elevate food contamination risks for Canadian consumers by diverting scarce resources away from other inspection programs,” said Bob Kingston, President of the Agriculture Union – PSAC which represents federal food inspectors.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz promised an additional $75 million for food safety including 70 new meat inspectors in September 2009 in response to the Weatherill Report on the Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak.  However, new inspector positions the CFIA may be creating have been more than offset by attrition.

“The lack of action in response to the Weatherill Report is bad enough.  Now the government has side-swiped real improvements to food safety inspection with the spending cuts it imposed in the budget,” Kingston said.

The only new funding received by CFIA for food safety since Ms. Weatherill released her report is $11 million contained in the 2010/11 Main Estimates that were tabled in the House of Commons on March 3rd, an amount that won’t come close to delivering on the Minister’s promise or addressing the safety standards gap with the US.

Until recently, Canada required a meat inspector to visit a meat processing facility once every 16 hours of plant operation, while the US standard requires an inspector visit once every 12 hours.

According to the memo, “…the CFIA will be providing additional inspection coverage starting in early November (2009), initially on each 12 hour processing shift in certain establishments processing meat products.  This will allow us to better meet the USDA’s technical requirements for products exported to the US.”

It is estimated that up to 50 additional meat inspectors are needed to meet the USDA requirements.

“Overtime dollars don’t grow on trees, especially at the CFIA.  In order to comply with US requirements for a daily inspector presence in meat processing plants, CFIA will be forced to bleed inspection resources once intended to safeguard Canadian consumers since the government has not delivered on its promise of more food inspectors to date,” said Kingston.

The food inspectors union regards this as the latest example of chronic and critical under resourcing of food safety and inspection in Canada.

The full text of the CFIA staff memo follows:

Memo to Inspection Staff
November 6, 2009

As part of Canada’s continued efforts to enhance food safety, the CFIA will be providing additional inspectional coverage starting in early November, initially on each 12 hour processing shift in certain establishments processing meat products.  This will allow us to better meet the USDA’s technical requirements for products exported to the US.

In order to carry out this initiative, the Agency will need to hire additional inspection staff.  The CFIA continues to explore funding options as we refine how we deliver these food safety enhancements.  In the short term, we will be looking to our current inspection staff to work hours in addition to their regularly scheduled shifts.  As much as possible, overtime hours will be assigned on a voluntary basis beginning in early November.

We continue to discuss these plans with PSAC and the meat industry.  We appreciate their cooperation in addressing this challenge.

Employees are encouraged to speak to their managers for more information on these new food safety enhancements and the requirement of overtime hours.  A set of Qs and As has been drafted and are attached for your use.

Please share them with your staff as you see fit.

Thank you for your ongoing support.

Cameron Prince
Vice-President, Operations

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For information: Jim Thompson 613-447-9592