Meat for Canadians inspected less than product destined for export
Edmonton (31 March 2015)– Faced with a financial crisis, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is quietly unraveling measures intended to prevent a repeat of Canada’s largest food borne illness outbreak that left 22 dead and countless sickened by contaminated Maple Leaf Foods cold cuts.
A heavily redacted internal CFIA document entitled Alberta North Region Food Inspection Strategy for Planned Work Plan Reductions, obtained through Access to Information, succinctly summaries the situation:
“…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.”
As of January 5th, the CFIA has instructed its staff in Northern Alberta to cut general sanitation inspection activities and pre-operation inspections by 50%. These inspections are now taking place with such regularity that meat production management knows when to expect them. These cuts apply equally to establishments producing for domestic and export markets.
“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 Bob Kingston, president of the food inspectors union.
According to internal CFIA sources, the Agency has also slashed by 40% its Northern Alberta inspectors’ daily presence in meat facilities producing for Canadians while maintaining daily presence in establishments eligible to export meat to the United States in order to meet American standards.
|CFIA Food Safety Program Budget and Staff|
|Actual (2013/14)1||$364 million||3296|
|Planned (2016/17)2||$286 million||2748|
“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.
According to CFIA forecasts, the current government plans to cut spending on food safety by 21% by 2016–17. This will translate to staff cuts of 16.5%, or 548 positions.
As a result, CFIA is facing a critical inspector shortage. In Northern Alberta, for example, only 12 of 18 meat hygiene inspection positions are currently filled. New hiring has been frozen and training has been deferred. Sheila Weatherill cited a shortage of inspectors and an absence of training as factors that contributed to the Maple Leaf Foods disaster.
“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.
Last week, Lillydale Foods recalled one of its products because of possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. What Canadian haven’t been told is that the Lillydale Foods plant in question is located in Edmonton and has been subject to this reduced inspection regime and short-handed inspectorate.
Ready-to-eat and cut meat products are produced in significant quantities in northern Alberta plants for consumption by Canadians and for export to foreign markets including the US.
Millions of Canadians could consume meat from plants in this region as they supply ready-to-eat cold cuts and cut meat to major grocery chains such as Costco, Safeway, Sobeys, Super Store and Save On Foods.
“The government has chosen to starve food safety inspection, now Canadians are suffering the consequences of this choice,” Kingston said.
At the same time as spending and staff for food safety have been strangled, the Agency has been given new responsibility for regulating up to 10,000 food importers.
“Regulation of imported food is a good thing and long neglected, but with no resources to ensure compliance good importers quickly become frustrated and lose any incentive to be good because they see bad actors infractions being ignored. Because of the cuts, it’s like licencing new drivers without a road test and no cops on the road,” Kingston said.
“It’s kind of 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,” Kingston concluded.
For information: Jim Thompson 613-447-9592
Related Document: News conference speaking notes