The Canadian Food Inspection Agency denies budget cuts impacted its work despite a U.S. audit that found nearly a million pounds of meat were rejected at the border as contaminated. The audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was conducted in 2014 but only disclosed this past January 20.
“There are no outstanding issues,” said Barbara Jordan, Agency vice-president of policy and programs. “There never was any impact on trade. The final audit report confirms that Canada’s meat, poultry and egg inspection systems are equivalent to the United States’ inspection system.”
The audit by the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service noted that of 2.3 billion pounds of Canadian meat and poultry shipped across the border over an 18-month period, a total 907,000 pounds were rejected due to listeria or fecal contamination.
American inspectors had “major concerns in regard to the adequacy of the CFIA inspection verification procedures for its zero tolerance verification activities in two audited establishments,” the U.S. Service wrote; “FSIS also questions the adequacy of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency verification procedures.”
The audit of nine Canadian processing plants was conducted between May 28 and June 13, 2014. The processors were not named.
Budget cuts at the inspection agency averaged up to $55.7 million a year at the time, according to newly-released Treasury Board accounts. The union representing inspectors also obtained a 2015-2016 Corporate Business Plan that detailed plans for an 18 percent reduction in meat and poultry inspections.
“It’s not a surprise,” said Bob Kingston, national president of the Agriculture Union that obtained the plan through Access To Information. “You will see the deficiencies described were not related to missing technology; they’re related to not having enough people to carry out the tasks they’re saying are required.”
“None of this surprises us,” Kingston said. “We’re hoping this might wake them up to the importance of getting those positions filled so that they can deliver on their mandate.”
Business Plan indicated funding for meat and poultry inspection was to be cut from $191 million a year to $156 million by 2017, with a reduction in staff from 1,812 employees to 1,539. “The Agency will assess the level of resources required for these initiatives,” Business Plan said.
“The new CFIA food program is designed to direct resources to the areas of highest risk across all food commodities,” Business Plan said; “Overall Agency resources decrease from 2013 to 2018 primarily due to various savings initiatives that focus on back office efficiencies and administrative changes that do not impact frontline services or food safety, and the sun-setting of resources for various initiatives under the Food Safety Program.”
American inspectors also audited egg processing plants, noting Canadian exports to the U.S. totalled 19.6 million pounds over an 18-month period. Only 60 pounds were rejected at the border “for reasons other than food safety”, the U.S. audit said.
The Consumers Council of Canada yesterday said in a commentary the audit raised legitimate worries over food safety. “Canada’s system of food safety has been undergoing a sea-change in approach to oversight and enforcement,” the Council wrote. “The voice of Canadian consumers in that process, through organized institutionally-capable representation, is weak. Canadian consumers think consumer groups have resources to act for them, which they simply do not. Canadian public policy has neglected this problem.”
“Industry and the objectives of governments — whether defined by special interests, ideology, fiscal or bottom-line objectives or unintended sloth, permeate the food safety system,” the Council wrote.
By Dale Smith