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Ottawa Slow On Listeria Response Proposals

“It’s not a question of hiring people off the street. We need competent, qualified people in food safety. And we have to provide them with training on our procedures.”

Aconsumers’ group and the union that represents federal meat inspectors says Ottawa is starving the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of funds rather than getting on with implementing recommendations intended to improve food safety.

Anu Bose, a spokeswoman for Option Consumer, and Bob Kingston, president of the union that represents CFIA meat inspectors, told a Parliament Hill news conference Jan. 27 that six months have passed since special investigator Sheila Weatherill released her report on the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak in 2008 that killed 22 and sickened scores more.

But little action has been taken on her 57 recommendations for improving food safety, they said. The CFIA’s efforts to correct problems “have been hamstrung by the absence of political will and commitment to improve on the part of the federal government,” Kingston said. “The inspector shortage is as acute as ever and we continue to be hobbled by an inspection system that is deeply flawed.”

“Consumer confidence in food safety has been shaken to the core. The absence of any visible action six months after the Weatherill report will do nothing to repair this,” Bose said. With its mandate to inspect sanitation practices and enforce food safety requirements, the underresourced CFIA is failing to protect Canadian consumers.

The charges didn’t sit well with CFIA executive vice-president Brian Evans. Their comments “don’t reflect the substantive work we’ve already done on the report.” He said many of the changes will be phased in over three years but the agency is acting on all that

fall within its purview.

For example, the CFIA has already hired 17 new inspectors and of fers are being made to others. It fully expects to reach its goal of 30 new inspectors by the end of March. More will be added over the next two years.

“It’s not a question of hiring people off the street. We need competent, qualified people in food safety. And we have to provide them with training on our procedures.”

As for the third-party audit of inspection resources recommended by Weatherill, CFIA has provided data to Agriculture Canada, which has hired a firm to study the material and examine conditions across the country. He couldn’t say why the government hadn’t announced the start of this work.

A review of CFIA’s meat inspection system is behind schedule but will begin in February, he adds. Part of the delay was consulting with the inspector’s union on how the review will operate.

In a brief statement issued after the news conference, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz insisted the government was investigating the promised $75 million in CFIA and other government agencies to help implement Weatherill’s recommendations. “This government has given more resources to CFIA and put more inspectors on the ground than ever before. We’ve also strengthened protocols such as reinstating mandatory environmental testing for ready-to-eat meats.”

In the past, Kingston has been ultra critical of CFIA management. This time, he said they are trying their best but they lack the finances and manpower to do all that’s expected.

He said that nothing had been done on analysis of CFIA’s inspection resources. Nor has the government taken a serious look at whether a new inspection approach adopted by CFIA, called Compliance Verification, actually works.

Kingston said that Ritz warned several months ago that food safety improvements would be delayed if the opposition forced an election. Now it appears change has been held up by the Harper government’s prorogation of Parliament. “With Parliament prorogued, there is little that consumers can do to hold the government to account for this dismal performance.”

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