News conference Speaking Notes

Bob Kingston, President
Agriculture Union – PSAC

Marianne Hladun, Prairie Regional Executive Vice-President
Public Service Alliance of Canada

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Edmonton, Alberta

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Good morning.

My name is Bob Kingston. I am President of the Agriculture Union. We represent federal food inspectors who work for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Before being elected to this position, I worked as an inspector for 25 years, including 15 years as an inspection supervisor.

With me this morning is Marianne Hladun, the Regional Executive Vice-President for the Public Service Alliance of Canada on the Prairies. Marianne has also worked for the CFIA as an inspector.

To paraphrase an old adage: if you forget or ignore history, you are bound to repeat grave mistakes.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is exactly what is happening with food inspection in Canada today.

On January 5th this year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency quietly established a double inspection standard for meat produced in northern Alberta.

For consumers outside Canada, the CFIA is maintaining daily presence of inspectors in establishments eligible to export their products to the US. This is a US safety standard and if we do not meet it the border could close to Canadian meat products.

For Canadian consumers, on the other hand, the CFIA has cut this standard of daily presence by 40% for plants producing for domestic markets. Instead of 5 days a week, CFIA inspectors are present in these plants only 3 days a week.

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.

CFIA has also cut general sanitation inspection activities and pre-operation inspections by 50%. These cuts apply equally to establishments producing for domestic and export markets.

From sources internal to the CFIA, we know that these changes have been made without any word of advice to the public. The heavily redacted document obtained through the Access to Information Program hints at this decision but hides the details. To quote from the document:

“…to ensure we live within our resources, we need to be smart about deciding what work we will do now, what we will defer and what we won’t do at all.”

I mentioned history a moment ago.

Almost eight years ago, we suffered the largest food borne illness outbreak ever. Twenty-two people were killed and countless sickened by Maple Leaf Foods cold cuts that were contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes.

In August 2008, a public health expert from Alberta – Sheila Weatherill – was appointed by the Prime Minster to find out what went wrong and recommend how to avoid repeating this tragedy.

Among other things, Ms. Weatherill discovered that a lack of proper sanitation and pre-operation inspection was one of the root contributors to the outbreak. Fast forward to today. These inspections activities, beefed up on the advice of Ms. Weatherill, are now being rolled back here in northern Alberta.

Ms. Weatherill also observed that inspection resources were woefully inadequate before the Maple Leaf outbreak.

Today, in northern Alberta, one third of the inspector positions required to verify safety in process meat plants are vacant. When leave of various kinds is taken in to account, only half of the frontline inspectors who should be safeguarding meat production are actually on the job.

The inspector shortage is not isolated to Northern Alberta.

Slaughter facilities in southern Alberta including the former XL Beef plant in Brooks, the source of the E. coli outbreak in September 2012, routinely operate with fewer than the minimum number of inspectors required on the line. Ditto for slaughter plans in Calgary and Lethbridge.

The entire “beef basket” of Canada is in the same corral as it relates to the inspector shortage.

This is an issue that starts here and spreads across the country.

Canadians who shop for cut meat or ready-to-eat products at Costco, Safeway, Sobey’s, Superstore or Save On Foods, all of which are supplied by plants in Northern Alberta, may be consuming meat from these facilities produced under a reduced inspection standard conducted by a diminished inspectorate.

Have we forgotten the lessons of Sheila Weatherill and are the same mistakes being repeated?

I can tell you that her report has been wiped from the government of Canada’s websites.

And, some of you may have heard that Lillydale Foods has recalled one of its products because of possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. What Canadians have not been told is that the Lillydale Foods plant in question is located in Edmonton and has been subject to this reduced inspection regime.

There is a simple reason for the shortage. It’s plain to see in the documents we have provided today. CFIA officials are candid to us about the reason. It’s all about money, or, rather, the lack of it.

As you can see, Ottawa plans to cut food safety spending deeply in their published forecasts.

It’s ironic that the CFIA has started unraveling measures put in place on the advice of Sheila Weatherill in her own back yard. But, the impact of these decisions could be felt across the country.

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For information: Jim Thompson 613-447-9592 jim@thompsoncom.ca