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Inspectors criticize plan to cut inspections at meat plants
Employees of Maple Leaf meats clean machinery at it's Bartor Road location in August, 2008. Meat was found to have listeriosis outbreak which came from the plant.
OTTAWA: The government's plan to cut inspectors put in place to plug holes in Canada's meat-inspection system in the aftermath of a deadly listeriosis outbreak would be a big step backwards, meat inspectors warned Monday.
The plan, outlined in Canadian Food Inspection Agency funding estimates, spells out that "resources will sunset for listeriosis, and for increased frequency of food inspection in meat processing establishments" beginning in the next fiscal year.
CFIA's 2011-12 plan and priorities report leaves the door open for the agency to "pursue" a funding extension, but the government did not say Monday whether an extension has been sought or has been secured.
These additional 170 inspectors, funded for two years beginning in 2010-11, means the agency now visits every federally registered plant on a daily basis as part of CFIA's bolstered inspection program in the wake of the August 2008 outbreak.
By reducing the frequency of inspection visits to plants, CFIA estimates the move can help shave $21.5 million from its Food Safety Program budget by 2013-14.
Union president Bob Kingston, along with Karen Clark, whose mother Francis, 89, died in 2008 from listeriosis after eating tainted Maple Leaf Foods cold cuts, came to Parliament Hill Monday to speak out against the planned cuts and launch a campaign to get food manufacturers on board to keep the current level of inspection presence at meat plants.
"Cuts of this magnitude would leave the food safety program reeling and severely diminish an inspector's ability to complete assignments, and that means risk of another major food-borne illness outbreak will be elevated," said Kingston.
"It scares me, quite honestly, to see the federal government's attitude," added Clark.
"It looks like they think Canadians have forgotten about the listeriosis outbreak and all the people it affected. That they can reduce these inspectors and safety programs and no one will notice. Something terrible happened to me and my family. We're not special. If the federal government does not maintain adequate safety oversight and inspection it could happen again to anyone's family."
Kingston said CFIA is also anticipating up to a 10 per cent cut to its overall budget in 2012-13 as part of the government's strategic and operating review. The details will be announced in the upcoming federal budget.
A 10 per cent reduction would translate to an additional cut of about $74 million, shrinking CFIA funding to a level found below the listeriosis outbreak of August 2008, said Kingston.
"If Ottawa proceeds with the cuts it has already announced, plus another 10 per cent, the federal government will be playing roulette with the health of Canadians."
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is in charge of CFIA, dismissed Kingston's "union tactics," saying the "facts are clear."
Since the outbreak, the government announced $75 million to implement the recommendations of independent investigator Sheila Weatherill, appointed to probe what went wrong in Canada's meat inspection system.
Meanwhile, Budget 2010 announced $13 million annually for two years to increase meat inspection capacity. Budget 2011 announced $100 million over five years to invest in inspection training, tools and technology and science capacity, with $18 million flowing to CFIA in the first two years.
"Our government has made real and significant investments to ensure the safety of Canada's food supply," Ritz said in a statement.
Ritz's office did not comment specifically on the question of the sunset of funding for bolstered inspection frequency, outlined in CFIA's 2011-12 plan and priorities report.
NDP food safety critic Malcolm Allen called on the government to make sure the cuts don't happen.