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CFIA, union butt heads on food safety

ottawa

The Canadian Food Inspection Union and one of its main unions are again butting heads over food safety.

The quarrel started back in the summer when the two sides were in contract negotiations and the disagreement escalated during the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak.

The Agriculture Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada wants the CFIA to hire a lot more inspectors to do hands-on checks of food plants.

CFIA wants the food industry to take a bigger responsibility for ensuring the safety of the products they sell while agency inspectors conduct a mixture of spot checks and verifications that company safety employees are doing their jobs under what’s called the Compliance Verification System (CVS).

In mid-December, union president Bob Kingston said a spending and hiring freeze at CFIA is creating a dangerous situation worse when it comes to food safety and inspection. He cited a memo from CFIA management which said the agency will “defer, scale down, or cancel all non-essential staffing, training, conferences, hospitality, professional services, travel and overtime.”

Shortage

The result of this action will be an ongoing shortage of inspectors which will make appropriate inspection of processed foods impossible, he said.

CFIA spokeswoman Monika Mazur said 200 new inspectors have been hired since March 2006 and overall staff has increased by 13.7 per cent. CFIA is currently in the process of hiring 58 more inspectors as part of this government’s commitment to food safety.

Given the tight times and the government’s request for restraint by its departments, the agency is curbing non-essential spending at least for the remainder of this fiscal year but essential services, such as food safety, will remain intact, she added.

“Measures being taken include deferring, scaling down or cancelling all non-essential training and conference attendance such as preferring teleconferences to booking flights, staffing in administrative and other areas unrelated to food safety and travel,” she noted. “Essential staffing and training related to our food safety mandate will remain intact.”

“CFIA is running out of money to pay people. They’re already short-staffed and vacant positions aren’t being filled. It’s so bad that the agency cannot ensure adequate inspection and meet its contractual obligations for paid leave, sick leave and training,” Kingston said.

Lack of training

He said staff in the food inspectorate is not been fully trained in the CVS. “CVS is a new protocol which gives more self-policing powers to the industry and has emboldened some companies to deny access to inspectors, preventing them from doing their jobs. Lack of training of inspectors in CVS will only magnify these and other problems.”

Mazur said the essential training for the CVS system continues and CFIA has had its biggest budgets ever during the last two years.

Kingston also tried to blame CFIA for the failure of the government to launch an inquiry into the cause of the listeria outbreak in Maple Leaf Foods deli foods back in August. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised the inquiry in late September. His office, which is setting up the inquiry, couldn’t say in mid-December what was happening with it.

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