The House of Commons Standing Committee on Health seeks clarification from the CFIA after the Agriculture Union disputes assurances given to the Committee by an Agency spokesperson about the frequency of meat inspection in Northern Alberta

Mr. Bill Casey, MP
Chair
Standing Committee on Health
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6

June 13, 2016

 

Dear Mr. Casey,

First, let me congratulate you on your election as chair of the Committee. As the representative of Canada’s food safety inspectors, I follow your work closely.

I have now had a chance to review the audio record of your meeting on June 8th, 2016, in particular the statements made by the spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

I am moved to write this letter because of the obvious and sincere commitment of the government to enhance and protect food safety. You need a reliable source of accurate information about the state of food safety and inspection. Unfortunately, you and your colleagues do not have that at the moment.

The assurance of the CFIA witness that there are inspectors present in every meat processing plant for every production shift is simply false.

Daily shift presence is a USA standard that must be met by food producers exporting ready-to-eat (RTE) meat products south of the border. Because of this USA requirement, and the shortage of inspectors, daily presence of inspectors at plants producing RTE meat products for Canadian consumers is frequently sacrificed, creating a double and lower standard for Canadian consumers and breaking a pledge CFIA made after the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis crisis to maintain daily shift presence in all federally registered establishments producing RTE meat products.

This reality is documented in the attached workplan for the CFIA’s Northern Alberta region, drawn up because the inspectorate there is only 66% staffed. The workplan for 2014/15 calls for:

“Reduced daily presence in registered processing establishments that are not eligible to export to the USA. Plants eligible to export to the USA will continue to be inspected under daily presence.”

The document also outlines troubling cuts across the board to sanitation inspections, the kind that were lacking at the Maple Leaf plant prior to the listeriosis outbreak.

As of May 1st, 2016, inspectors in Northern Alberta have been directed to resume all inspection tasks but they are still working with 33% of positions vacant and the daily shift presence double standard remains in place.

The CFIA’s witness also minimized the significant number of inspector positions that are vacant. Our own research shows most CFIA programs are currently short staffed approximately 30%.

The survey of frontline inspectors that was characterized by the CFIA witness as an “overstatement” found that more than half (55%) describe the current complement of inspection staff in their immediate work group as “inadequate to complete all tasks needed to ensure compliance with food safety requirements”.

That should give your committee cause for concern because the food inspection system is weakened right now, just when the Agency is about to overhaul its entire inspection process.

The admission that the CFIA has not done an audit to make sure it has the resources to safely undertake the most massive overhaul of food inspection ever attempted by the Agency is sobering.

The last time the CFIA changed its inspection process was in 2008, just before the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak. The investigation into that tragedy found, among other things, that:

  • Too few inspectors were on the job prior to the outbreak, and
  • Just prior to the outbreak, a new inspection system was “implemented without a detailed assessment of the resources available”.

It is troubling that a science-based organization like the CFIA has not done a rigourous assessment of the resources needed to implement its new plans while authorizing its spokesperson to declare to law makers that all is well.

I don’t think Canadians will take much comfort from the commitment the CFIA’s witness gave to conduct such an audit five years after the Safe Food for Canadians Act comes into force, given the Agency’s failings in the recent past.

Your committee needs to have an accurate picture of the state of food safety in Canada. I would be pleased to brief you and your committee colleagues on this matter further.

Yours sincerely,

Bob Kingston
President
Agriculture Union
Copies to:

Members of the Standing Committee on Health
David Gagnon, Clerk of the Standing Committee on Health
Dr. Bruce Archibald, President of the CFIA

 

As a result of Mr. Kingston’s letter to Mr. Casey, the Health Committee wrote seeking clarification from the CFIA. You can read that letter here:  Bill Casey to Paul Glover

The CFIA responded to that letter. You can see their response here:  CFIA to Bill Casey