VANCOUVER—Recent cutbacks to the number of federal food inspectors in Western Canada could put consumers at risk, according to the workers’ union.
Canada is removing dozens of Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff by January 2014. The federal government decided to stop contracting out their services as a cost-saving measure.
That leaves about 60 provincially-licensed plants in B.C., 20 in Saskatchewan and 33 in Manitoba void of inspectors to test for contaminants like E. coli and listeria. Provincial inspections won’t require that type of testing.
Bob Kingston, president of the federal Agriculture Union, says that will leave it up to the province to dig up more cash.
But the deadline is too tight to fully train up a new force of seasoned inspectors and too much infrastructure is needed to ensure quality stays high, Kingston warns.
“The timing couldn’t be worse. The public already have, I think, quite legitimate concerns about anything that would diminish the food safety standard that they do have in place,” he said.
The government was planning to make the cuts back in 2008, but shelved its plans after 22 people died in a tainted-meat crisis originating from Toronto-based Maple Leaf.
Manitoba Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers said he’s disappointed by the move, but must take a “co-operative” approach to ensure a smooth transition over the coming months.
He said the province would work hard to protect the reputation of the farmers and processors supplying food.
The provinces already manage their own inspection systems with their own guidelines, but have paid federal inspectors to conduct the reviews.
The union describes it as “much less stringent” standards overall, while the federal oversight looked at the production process.
Kingston said the difference was underscored earlier this year when media revealed a Pitt Meadows, B.C., meat plant hid test results from the federal meat inspector showing E. coli contamination at the facility. The operator opted out of the federal regime and registered only as a provincial facility, allowing it to stay open.
In Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, provincial inspectors have long been in charge of ensuring meat products produced there are safe to eat.
The Atlantic provinces, which have no provincial programs at all, will continue to be inspected federally.
Cathy Airth, associate vice-president of operations branch for the CFIA, called food safety a “shared responsibility.”
She said fewer than 100 people will be impacted and most will be re-assigned or hired by the provinces.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz declined to comment.