Bob Kingston, President
Agriculture Union – PSAC
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
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Good morning and thanks for coming out.
My name is Bob Kingston and I am the national president of the Agriculture Union. We represent food inspectors who work for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
I am on leave from the CFIA where I worked for 25 years as an inspector including 15 years as an inspection supervisor.
On March 31st last year, we revealed that the shortage of meat inspectors in Northern Alberta was so acute that critical inspection tasks were thrown out the window.
One year later, almost to the day, the team of meat inspectors working here remains short staffed by 33%.
Today, the inspector shortage is Canada-wide.
We are here this morning to make public a survey of food inspectors that will give you a glimpse of the food safety system from the front lines where my members work.
The survey findings represent a perspective that the leadership of the CFIA rarely sees and never talks about.
CFIA’s message is that all is well. They say there have been no cuts. They produce numbers to show there are more than enough inspectors. But they are reporting positions even if those positions are vacant with no inspectors doing those jobs.
It’s a completely different story on the front lines.
The survey was done by Abacus Data which collected the views of 580 CFIA staff. The findings tell quite a different and troubling story than the one you may be familiar with from the Agency.
First, more than half of those who replied to the survey say they do not have enough inspectors in their immediate work area to ensure compliance with food safety requirements.
In other words, the system that is supposed to keep the food supply safe is not being fully implemented as designed because there are not enough inspectors to do the job..
Cracks start to open in the system. Where inspectors once checked to make sure food processing plants are clean everyday, all of a sudden inspectors are on site checking only three times a week. It means inspectors investigate fraudulent claims made by restaurants only after a complaint has been received. It means that the safe and humane handling of animals rarely happens.
The food safety system is already bare bones. It’s working at minimum levels with no slack built in. Going below these minimums exposes consumers to uncharted risk, and that should be a concern.
As should this finding: one-in-four inspectors have been asked by a CFIA manager to stop doing required food safety related tasks.
Most survey respondents believe these instructions have been issued because there are not enough inspectors available to do all required food safety tasks.
Inspectors worry that a major food borne illness outbreak is on the horizon.
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.
It is sobering that the people who are charged with preventing outbreaks so widely believe that the next one is on the near horizon.
I want to point out that these findings are more intensely held among inspectors in the meat hygiene program, which handles products that can pose high food safety risk when not handled properly.
I am not surprised given this finding:
Only 27% of meat inspectors report there are always enough staff in their local work group to provide daily presence of inspection staff in meat processing plants.
More than half 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.
Daily presence in meat processing plants is a safety must. It is a safety requirement for very good reasons. Daily presence is all about preventing problems before they occur.
Now is a particularly bad time for these kinds of staff shortages to be so widespread.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is implementing a new inspection system, the second time it has overhauled its approach in less than ten years.
The last time such an overhaul occurred was in 2007.
The CFIA had introduced the Compliance Verification System (CVS), immediately before the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak. Food companies took on more responsibility for documenting their our safety practices and meat inspectors spent more time in the office 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.
With the Agency’s plan to change everything, now is precisely the riskiest time to have a widespread shortage of inspectors.
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.
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.
I am happy to answer your questions.