CFIA cuts hurting food safety

With an election looming, now is seen as the time to put food safety and funding cuts on candidates’ agendas

Agroup concerned with food safety says the current government’s refusal to acknowledge a Canada-wide shortage of federal inspectors is putting public safety at risk.

Speaking to reporters in Winnipeg, the president of the union representing federal food inspectors said that the Conservative government’s own staff have raised the alarm over cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, but to no avail.

“The government has been presented with the information… and yet the government is denying it; they’re not turning a blind eye, they’re in denial,” said Bob Kingston. “We think Canadians should be very concerned.”

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In Manitoba, some federally inspected plants are operating almost 60 per cent below minimum staffing requirements, said Kingston. He added that the Maple Leaf plant in Brandon typically operates 34 per cent below the number of inspectors required to ensure food safety and animal welfare.

The Brandon slaughter facility kills 20 hogs every minute — something that requires strict oversight to avoid contamination, said Kingston.

However, it’s not the first time the issue of food safety has been raised in relation to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Last March, staffing levels were cut in Alberta meat-processing facilities, although not those that shipped to the United States. It’s something the union described as particularly concerning given that in 2012, millions of pounds of E. coli-contaminated beef had to be recalled from the former XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

This spring also saw Reuters news agency obtain a portion of an internal CFIA report approved by Health Minister Rona Ambrose. It outlined additional cuts to CFIA, resulting in the elimination of 192 full-time positions.

Last week, Kingston said that in total, there will be 273 fewer inspectors across Canada by 2018.

The review found that the shortage in Manitoba’s four major slaughter facilities is so acute that inspectors working in the province’s meat-processing facilities are often “borrowed” to cover glaring inspection gaps in slaughter establishments, he said, describing this practice as “robbing the poor to pay the destitute.”

A newly released Nanos poll shows that Canadian consumers also have concerns about food safety and want to keep companies from policing themselves on safety issues.

The survey found that seven in 10 Canadians believe government should be ultimately responsible for food safety.

It also revealed that most Canadians oppose cutting food safety budgets. Fifty-five per cent of respondents thought the federal government should cancel the cuts and invest more in food safety, while another 28 per cent would cancel the cuts. Sixty-one per cent expressed concern that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has fewer staff today than before the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people in 2008.

“Canadians just do not trust the food companies when it comes to safety,” said Kingston. “They reject the federal government’s retreat from direct oversight of food processors and increasing reliance on industry to police their own safety practices.”

Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is urging Manitobans and all Canadians to make food safety an election issue.

“Food safety could have a bearing at the ballot box,” he said. “We’re very worried about food safety in this country today, because of the cuts this government has made to the Canadian food inspection agency.”

He added that both the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party have said they would audit the CFIA if elected to identify and address needs and shortfalls.

“So now is the time for Canadians to put this on the agenda,” Aylward said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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