At a new conference this week, the Agriculture Union (AU) revealed that meat sold within Canadian borders is not as thoroughly inspected as meat that is exported, creating a “double standard”.
Under pressure to reduce its budget deficit, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) cut 40 percent of its inspection staff at meat plants in Alberta in January. The affected plants are responsible for domestic production only. The CFIA was reportedly instructed to cut general inspection activities such as reviews of record keeping and inspection results, as well as inspections of plants prior to operations. Inspectors’ also went from working five days per week to just three, according to the CU. The daily presence of inspectors at plants that export to the U.S. has reportedly gone unchanged.
"With available resources that CFIA has, the only way they can meet American inspection standards in order to maintain access to the U.S. market is to shortchange inspection of meat for Canadian consumers,” says Bob Kingston, president of the AU.
Originally, the agency beefed up its inspection staff following a 2008 listeriosis outbreak linked to deli meat that ultimately killed 22 people. The outbreak was believed to be caused by a lack of food safety workers and insufficiently trained inspectors. Staffing levels at meat plants that handle export inspections have remained the same.
Another outbreak in 2012 led to millions of pounds of meat contaminated with Escherichia coli to be recalled. Kingston said in a phone interview with Reuters that he doesn’t believe lessons were learned from either the 2008 or the 2012 meat recalls.
Just last week, the CFIA announced a recall of chicken products believed to be linked to Listeria contamination.
UPDATE: In an official statement signed by CFIA president Bruce Archibald, the agency says that the AU is “unnecessarily undermining Canadians’ confidence in their food safety system.” The CFIA claims that reports of food safety practices being cut in Northern Alberta are false.
According to the statement, the AU is well aware that there are fluctuations in inspection staff levels, depending on demand for service and the level of risk associated with certain types of inspections. Regardless, the CFIA states that “a food safety inspector is on the ground at all times in every federally-registered meat slaughter plant in Canada.” The agency also maintains that any differences in how meat is inspected in Canada versus the U.S.--from labeling standards to meat cut classifications--is due to variations in trade standards and has nothing to do with food safety.
In an effort to substantiate their efforts in food safety, the CFIA points to a record of increased spending as food safety has become a higher priority for Canadian government officials. Since 2008, $517 million has been spent on a number of food safety programs and initiatives. An additional $153.6 million has been allocated for the next 5 years, says the agency.