Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz insists that cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in the federal government’s 2012 budget won’t compromise food safety, but the Public Service Alliance of Canada says that job cuts at the agency will roll back improvements to food inspection that were made in response to the 2008 listeriosis outbreak.
“We’re looking at administrative money for the most part, programming is not being affected,” Mr. Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.) told The Hill Times following the federal budget’s March 29 tabling. “There will be no changes in frontline inspectors.”
Citing the budget’s two-year $50.2-million investment in food inspection, the Minister said that Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Agriculture Canada would achieve savings by aligning more closely—“merging their back office functions,” as the budget puts it.
Overall, Agriculture Canada will have its budget cut by 10 per cent, or $253-million, over the next three years, while the CFIA faces cuts totaling $56-million between 2012 and 2015.
Mr. Ritz has continued to deny that the cuts would not change the number of frontline inspectors, but last week Public Service Alliance of Canada Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston reported that 59 federal food inspectors had been put on notice since the end of March. Of those 59, 40 are meat inspectors.
“These people are trained in all forms of animal pathology and food science. They make sure that when animals are slaughtered they’re actually healthy,” Mr. Kingston told The Hill Times in an interview last week.
Mr. Kingston dismissed the government’s two-year investment in the CFIA as simply funding studies into further streamlining food inspection.
“They take away money from the ongoing operational budget and replace it with a one-shot injection so they can study the process,” Mr. Kingston charged. “They’ve got appointed senior managers down the line who don’t understand what’s going on – you end up in a dangerous space, and that’s where we are with CFIA right now.”
Among the changes to the CFIA in the budget, the agency will introduce “a web-based label verification tool” for consumers to report food safety concerns to industry as part of an overall strategy to “streamline and accelerate the process by which foods are regulated.”
“These changes will assist industry in getting products to market faster and allow the CFIA to focus on the verification and inspection activities that do keep the food supply system in Canada one of the safest in the world,” read a statement released by the minister’s office last week, which also lashed out at “self-serving unions” for spreading misinformation.
In 2008 a listeriosis outbreak from processed meats led to 23 deaths. Mr. Ritz faced calls for his resignation over the crisis, which intensified after a recording circulated of the minister riffing on “death by a thousand cold cuts” in a conference call with senior bureaucrats at the height of the outbreak. It was also revealed that he doesn’t care much for Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.), who was his party’s agriculture critic at the time.
Mr. Ritz has maintained there will be no changes to front line food inspection, but it certainly sounded like that changes were coming when he appeared on CBC Radio’s The House on April 14.
Mr. Ritz conceded that three Prairie provinces (B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan) would be taking over federal inspection roles at meat processing plants.
When host Evan Solomon asked Mr. Ritz of a proposal being considered in B.C. to use video surveillance to monitor food safety in place of creating new frontline provincial inspectors, the Minister defended the system.
“It’s a camera that is remote controlled from a facility—it might be feet or yards away from the actual kill floor, but it’s there—it could be a camera on the carcasses as they move down the line in between applications, as they go through the processing capacity. All they’re doing is ensuring that nothing comes in contact with the carcass. It doesn’t take someone standing there. It takes a camera showing that same view,” Mr. Ritz said.
“There’s someone with their eyeballs on the camera, then there’s someone that checks those tapes later on to make sure that person didn’t fall asleep,” Mr. Ritz said.
PSAC has criticized such a systems as the video inspection and web-based consumer reporting system as “downstream enforcement” where contaminated food isn’t identified until it’s already on grocery store shelves.
“It sounds exactly like the one that got them into trouble at Maple Leaf,” said Mr. Kingston, referring to the Maple Leaf plants that were the source of the 2008 listeriosis outbreak. “They don’t want experts, they want a bunch of people looking at company paper work.”
Original article on Hill Times website (subscription required)