Food inspectors report widespread staff shortage: survey Deficit most acute in meat plants

For immediate release

Ottawa (March 16, 2016) – The food inspection deficit that has left Alberta meat plants short-handed for more than a year is a now a national problem according to a new Abacus Data survey of front line food inspectors which found widespread staff shortages and concern that food safety is threatened, particularly in meat plants.

This finding emerges as risk to consumers is already heightened because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is on the verge of overhauling its food inspection program, and after leaked internal CFIA documents revealed sanitation inspections of meat plants in Alberta have been cut because of the shortage.

Abacus Data found more than half (55%) of respondents describe the current complement of inspectors in their immediate workplace as inadequate to ensure compliance with food safety requirements.abacus chart.001

“Inspectors worry that a major food borne illness outbreak is on the horizon, and with good reason,” said Bob Kingston, President of the food inspectors union that commissioned the survey.

Nearly seven in ten (69%) respondents believe that a major food borne illness outbreak is likely in the near future given the state of food safety in Canada today. Just 15% believe that such an outbreak is unlikely.

In meat plants, the inspector shortage appears more acute. Seven-in-ten (71%) inspectors in process meat plants and 60% in slaughter facilities report staffing levels in their immediate work team that are inadequate to ensure safety compliance.

Daily presence of inspection staff in meat processing plants is required by CFIA regulations, yet only 27% of meat inspectors report there are always enough staff in their local work group to provide this coverage while more than half (57%) report sufficient staff is available only some of the time; 13% say daily presence rarely happens in their work area and 4% say it never happens.

“For too long, the previous government starved food safety. The CFIA just does not have the frontline resources needed right now. This is a red flag that the new government needs to implement its election promise of new investment to shore up frontline food inspection, said Bob Kingston, President of the food inspectors union.

Earlier this month, the Treasury Board of Canada revealed that the previous government cut the CFIA’s budget by $56 million a year as part of its Strategic and Operating Review. In addition, the latest spending estimates forecast a cut to the CFIA’s Food Safety program of $57 million. The Liberals promised during the election to invest an extra $80 million in frontline food inspection.

One-in-four (24%) of all respondents have been asked by a CFIA manager to stop doing required food safety related tasks and most (59%) believe these instructions have been issued because there are not enough inspectors available to do all required food safety tasks.

“The shortage of inspectors amplifies the risk associated with CFIA’s plans to introduce a new inspection process,” Kingston said.

The survey findings emerge as the CFIA implements a new inspection system, the second time it has overhauled its approach in less than ten years.

In 2007, the CFIA introduced the Compliance Verification System (CVS), immediately before the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak because of a shortage of inspectors. Food companies took on more responsibility for documenting their our safety practices and meat inspectors spent more time reviewing company records instead of watching employees and operations on the plant floor.

Today, the Agency is about to transform the inspection system for the same reason once again.

“During a transition such as this, the CFIA should actually increase the number of inspectors in case something goes wrong. After all, this is about public safety,” Kingston said.

The survey found half (50%) of all respondents doubt the CFIA’s senior leadership will be able to introduce Inspection Modernization while protecting public safety at the same time. Only 14% agree the CFIA’s senior leadership will be able to protect public safety during the transition to Inspection Modernization.

The online survey of 580 members of the Agriculture Union who work for the CFIA was conducted by Abacus Data between February 12 and February 29, 2016. With a total of 3,712 members of the Agriculture Union who work at the CFIA, the response rate was 15.6%. The margin of error for this study of 4.15%, 19 times out of 20.

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

The Abacus Data report is available here.

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