By Sheila Dabu Nonato, Postmedia News April 14, 2012
Sampling of food packages with healthy messages and logos for consumers are shown in Ottawa, Ont., September 9, 2010.
Photograph by: Steve McKinley , Postmedia News
Canadian food safety may be compromised as the federal government plans to "download" inspection oversight to at least three provinces, says the head of the public service’s agriculture union.
Dozens of federal meat inspectors received "surplus notices" this week, meaning they would be moving to other positions, said Bob Kingston, president of the agriculture union within the Public Service Alliance of Canada, on CBC’s The House radio program.
"We’re talking about 40 meat inspectors whose positions do delivery of some provincial meat delivery programs in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the idea is to let the provinces resume or assume the responsibility of inspecting provincially registered plants," he said Saturday.
"From what we’ve seen, the provinces have no intention of delivering the service at the same level the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did and that’s been our concern from the get-go," Kingston said.
The agriculture union is estimating a "quadrupling" of provinces’ food inspection budgets "just to be able to deliver that program," he added. "Without oversight, you’re going to have many problems."
Another major concern, Kingston said, is that with less money and fewer inspectors, food processing plants and slaughterhouses may be left to monitor themselves.
He said British Columbia has published a report referring to a "no inspection option," which may mean a plant would get an annual visit from the province’s Health Ministry by "somebody who’s not used to looking at these facilities."
"That causes us great concern," he said.
Under the current system, he said, plants are inspected at least once a week by federal food safety inspectors.
The union claims that a lack of food safety infrastructure could put consumers at risk for e. coli, listeriosis and other food-borne illnesses.
Kingston referred to the 2008 listeriosis scare when 22 Canadians died and dozens fell ill after eating cold cuts tainted with listeria.
A federal investigation found that in the years leading up to the outbreak, the federal inspection agency was not conducting mandatory safety audits at the Maple Leaf Foods plant, the union said.
With the planned federal budget cuts to the food safety agency, consumers are "going to be more at risk," Kingston said, adding the cuts were made in "total secrecy" without consultation with front-line workers about their potential impact.
He also criticized an online tool announced in the recent federal budget that lets consumers report food complaints on CFIA’s website.
"How will you validate it as a consumer? Our people are highly trained and they’ve got labs behind them," he said.
However, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told the same program that the 40 meat federal meat inspectors who may be reclassified as provincial inspectors would not put Canada’s food safety at risk.
"Whether they are under a provincial or federal labour will not compromise food safety," he said. "At the end of the day, those provincial sites will be inspected to the same level as before by someone wearing a provincial badge, not a federal badge," Ritz explained.
As for a potential "no inspection" system for B.C. slaughterhouses, Ritz said this might mean the use of video cameras to replace inspectors on the "kill floor."
But there would still be someone monitoring the video, he explained.
According to Ritz, the federal inspection agency will still be pre-approving food labels "before anything hits the shelf."
"It’s business as usual. We’re finding more efficient, more effective ways to use taxpayers money," he said.
The cuts at the federal inspection agency will be implemented over three years to help save $56 million in operating costs by 2014-15.
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