CFIA under fire over plant and meat inspection

“The agency lacks an effective, integrated risk-management approach to plant and plant product imports.”

– Sheila Fraser, Auditor General

Last week was a rough one for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency with the auditor general criticizing it and a group of veterinarians suing it.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser released a report faulting the way CFIA manages the risks posed by foreign plant pests and diseases entering Canada.

The same day, news emerged that federal veterinarians have hit CFIA with a legal action over its new proposed poultry plant inspection system, claiming it poses a public health risk.

Fraser’s audit of CFIA’s plant health risk program found the agency “faces a number of challenges in assessing the risks posed by invasive plants, pests and diseases.”

Among her criticisms:

CFIA has a “growing backlog” of plant health risk assessments (more than a year’s worth).

Plant import inspections are inadequate, inconsistent or sometimes not done at all.

Pest sur veys “are not risk based and focus almost exclusively on invasive plants, pests and diseases rather than identifying new threats before they become established plant health emergencies.”

Programs “lack quality management processes” so that the agency “has no systematic way of knowing if its procedures are adequately designed and operating effectively.”

CFIA’s plant health division lacks information systems to show if procedures are properly followed.

“Our overall conclusion is that the agency lacks an effective, integrated risk-management approach to plant and plant product imports,” Fraser said in her report.

She complained her office found similar problems in 2003 and nothing has changed.

In responding to the report, CFIA said it agreed with Fraser’s recommendations and would make improvements.

Meanwhile, the veterinarians’ union of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPS) has filed a notice of application in Federal Court against CFIA’s Poultry Rejection Program.

The proposed program is presently a pilot project at two poultry slaughterhouses in Quebec.

The project allows plants workers to carry out most of the inspection and certification duties currently done by independent veterinarians which CFIA employs.

Vets who would normally inspect carcasses will now only do spot checks. Otherwise, they will sign off on inspections by plant workers, said Michéle Demers, PIPS president.

The procedure violates the Meat Inspection Act, which

requires vets to look at all carcasses with deviations, she said.

“We’re saying that CFIA does not follow its own regulations as per the Meat Inspection Act. We’re also saying that the fact of not having professional veterinarians on the inspection line to look at those carcasses increases the risk to the health of Canadians,” said Demers.

She denied the issue is about job security rather than food safety.

“It has to do with the professional ethics of the people who are asked to certify the meat that they’re supposed to inspect. Now they’re being asked to certify those meats without actually inspecting them.”

A CFIA spokesperson said the agency could not comment on the matter because it is before the courts.

The change in protocol reflects a strategy by government toward deregulating food inspection and giving industry more control over it.

A leaked federal document last summer proposed changing CFIA inspectors’ role to one of “oversight” rather than hands-on. The federal biologist who leaked the memo, Luc Pomerleau, was fired. He has filed a grievance.

In the House of Commons, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the former Liberal government developed the poultry pilot project. He insisted it does not compromise food safety.

“I can assure the member that this government will not introduce any program that does not meet due diligence and sound scientific facts,” Ritz said.

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