Canadian meat inspectors are overworked, under-trained and understaffed, risking the safety of meat products and the integrity of the Canadian meat inspection system.
That’s the claim of the agricultural union within the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Canadian federal meat inspectors. "Recent changes have simply made their jobs impossible," Bob Kingston, president of the agricultural union, told MEATPOULTRY.com. He said changes, "which basically regimented the inspection system with lots more documentation," came at two times, first in 2007 and then in 2008. The latter changes in inspection procedures, called the Compliance Verification System, a refinement of Canada’s HACCP program which requires inspectors to do more swab testing for pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes and to make step-by-step audits, increased inspector workloads about 10 percent. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not match the increased workload with an increase in the number of inspectors, he said.
"These changes won’t hamper production in meat plants, but they could compromise food safety due to overworked inspectors," he stated.
Jim Laws, executive director of the Canadian Meat Council, agrees there’s a problem. "CFIA needs to do a much better job training inspectors," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. "It’s clear to our members that inspectors are not well enough trained in aseptic testing." He added: "They could’ve done a better job, too, rolling out the April ’08 changes." He said that the Maple Leaf Foods recall last summer, caused by products contaminated with Listeria and one of the largest food recalls in Canadian history, "does make one wonder if the agency had the right allocations" of inspector resources.
According to union figures, there are 25.5 inspectors covering 98 processing plants and 19 cold storage facilities in the Toronto region alone. In Montreal, 33.75 inspectors cover 138 processing plants and 22 cold storage operations. Out west in Vancouver, 6.75 inspectors visit 20 plants and 20 cold storage facilities.
A report on inspection resource allocations and inspector workloads is due to be given to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July. A second report may be issued later in the summer by a committee in Parliament that’s investigating the issue, "although that one may get tied up by politics," Kingston noted.
The union hopes either or both reports will recommend more resources be given to CFIA for training and staffing. The union president said that his organization has no argument with the changes themselves – "they’re pointed in the right direction" – just with their implementation. "The inspectors need more resources to verify what they’re being asked to verify. Even the industry says they’ve got a daunting task," he said.
"Meat inspection in 2009 is a lot different than it was 20 years ago," said Laws. "The technology, the science – it’s much more complex. Processing plants are so much more complex too, and things are not at all the same from plant to plant. Inspectors need to be properly trained to handle these differences."