EDMONTON, Alberta – Syndicat Agriculture Union, which represents food inspectors, claims the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has reduced the frequency of meat inspections at some meat processing plants in the province of Alberta.
Redacted documents the union obtained through an open records request show the CFIA instructed staff in northern Alberta to cut general sanitation inspection activities by 50 percent. This includes reviews of recordkeeping and inspection results in addition to pre-op inspections of plants before operations.
“In an effort to ensure we live within our resources, we need to be smart about deciding what work we will do now, what we will defer and what we won’t do at all. Inspectors have been advised that these types of decisions are not for them to make as individual contributors…” the documents state.
In response to the union's concerns, CFIA issued a statement saying that field inspection staff grew by 19 percent since 2007, although the number of field inspection Staff can fluctuate based on demand for service.
“As a result, the agency's complement of field inspection staff may vary throughout the year by as much as five percent or 150 to 200 field inspection staff,” CFIA said.
The CFIA also is undertaking major initiatives focused on legislative, regulatory and inspection renewal and modernization. These initiatives, the agency explained, will enable CFIA to deliver inspections more efficiently, achieve greater industry compliance and better protect consumers.
The cutbacks come as the Canadian government responds to calls to eliminate the country's budget deficit. But Bob Kingston, president of the union, argued that reducing the number of inspections at meat plants “unraveled” reforms implemented following two of Canada's biggest meat-related recalls.
A widespread outbreak of listeriosis in 2008 was linked to cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. Twenty-two people died, and there were 57 confirmed cases. Canada's government increased funding for more inspections at meat and poultry processing plants; inspector training, and tools and technology to prevent, detect and respond to future outbreaks.
“After Maple Leaf, CFIA tightened verification of meat production facilities’ sanitation because Sheila Weatherill [former Alberta Health Services Board member] found lingering contamination was a factor contributing to the disaster,” said Bob Kingston, president of the food inspectors union. “To deal with its financial crisis, the CFIA is now starting to roll back those measures.”
In 2012, XL Foods in Brooks, Alberta, recalled more than 1 million pounds of beef products following an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The XL Foods recall was the largest beef recall in Canadian history. Following the incident, the government passed legislation to create a uniform process of inspection across all food commodities.
An excerpt of 2014-2015 CFIA report estimates that the government would cut the agency's food safety program budget by $78 million to $286 million in 2016/2017 from $364 million in 2013-2014.
The union also said CFIA reduced inspectors' daily presence in meat plants producing products for the domestic market while maintaining daily presence in establishments eligible to export meat to the United States. The CFIA documents allude to “several policies, procedures and export requirements that do prescribe a level of inspection presence.” Kingston said “With available resources, the only way the CFIA can meet American inspection standards in order to maintain access to the US market is to short-change inspection of meat for Canadian consumers — it’s that simple.”
However, the agency said the US and Canada have similar inspection systems, and both countries have earned reputations as leaders in food safety.
“It is important to note that differences in inspection procedures are trade related but not food safety related,” CFIA said. “In fact, the Conference Board of Canada rates Canada's food safety system number one out of 17 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.”