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News

Are Cuts to Canadian Meat Inspection a Spoiler?

Gov assures safety, but critics warn of increased health risks and cost burden for BC.

By Tom Sandborn 20 Jan 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers health policy and labour news for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

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With cuts, risk of a major food-borne illness outbreak is 'elevated': Agriculture Union president.

Is something rotten in the state of Canadian meat inspection? According to the union that represents federal food inspectors and other critics, the answer is yes.

In August, the Harper government announced it would withdraw staff from inspecting plants that produce meat for local consumption in B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2014 -- a move that a B.C. Ministry of Health spokeswoman told The Tyee would be "more expensive" for the province.

Now, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) plans to cut $21.5 million in funding and over 200 staff positions in the next fiscal year, Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston revealed in an Ottawa press conference on Jan. 16. The planned cuts, Kingston told The Tyee, would effectively reverse staff and funding that was added to federal food inspection in the wake of a lethal outbreak of listeriosis caused by contamination at an Ontario Maple Leaf processed meat plant in 2008.

Listeriosis is a bacterial disease that is particularly lethal for the elderly, newborns, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Its symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, headaches and convulsions. Forty per cent of those diagnosed with listeriosis in connection with the Maple Leaf Foods outbreak died. Reported cases of listeriosis doubled between 2005 and 2009 in Canada.

"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," Kingston said.

Karen Clark, whose mother Francis died in the listeriosis outbreak of 2008, joined Kingston at the Ottawa press conference.

"It scares me, quite honestly, to see the federal government's attitude. 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," she said.

Food safety 'will not be affected': agriculture minister

The Tyee asked Gerry Ritz, federal minister of agriculture, for a response to Kingston's statements. In a Jan. 16 email, the minister wrote:

"Unfortunately for Mr. Kingston and his union tactics, the facts are clear. Our government has made real and significant investments to ensure the safety of Canada's food supply. Canadian families can be assured that the safety of our food supply will not be affected as federal departments and Agencies look for ways to be more efficient and more financially prudent with taxpayer's dollars. The Government of Canada has and will continue to make the safety and security of Canadians a top priority."

NDP food safety critic Malcolm Allen does not share the Tory minister's confidence. He told The Tyee, "Just a few short years after the devastating listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 Canadians, this government is turning their backs on consumers."

Allen called Minister Ritz's statements on the coming cuts "typical PR spin," and insisted the cuts will compromise public safety. The NDP critic emphasized that CFIA inspectors are well-trained and professional. He told The Tyee the staff members are doing a great job, and argued that the government should at a minimum maintain the funding and inspection levels that are currently in place.

Liberal agriculture critic Frank Valeriote agreed. The government should not be making the proposed cuts to food inspection funding, he told The Tyee.

"This government has a track record of cutting and not prioritizing," he said. "It is not too much to say that these cuts could cost Canadian lives. This is shameful."

Dr. Ray Copes, scientific director of environmental and occupational health at Public Health Ontario, said it's important to recognize that it's not possible to "inspect your way to food safety." The onus for safety must remain on industry, he said. Nevertheless, he did say that Canadians need to remain concerned about the danger of a repeat of the Maple Leaf deaths.

"Yes, we need to remain concerned. Vigilance is absolutely essential."

Kevin Allen, who teaches food microbiology at the University of British Columbia, agrees with Copes' cautionary note about not linking inspections and safety too closely. However, he added, "We don't like to see inspection staff laid off. Food inspectors are overworked as it is."

The Tyee asked Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain for comment on the recently announced cuts, but a media spokeswoman said the company was not willing to comment on the matter.

Tiered safety system creates 'higher risk': Kingston

Food-borne illness affects 11 million Canadians every year, according to a Canadian Food Inspections Agency web page, but that may well be an outdated figure.

Public Health Ontario's Copes said that current estimates for food-borne illness in Canada now run as high as 13 million annually, which he indicated was probably low, as many such illnesses do not get recorded. In the U.S., he said, the Center for Disease Control puts the figure for food-borne disease at 48 million every year, with 128,000 annual hospitalizations and 3,000 yearly deaths.

Figures for Canadian deaths related to tainted food seem to be harder to come by, due to an inadequate national tracking and surveillance system for food-borne illnesses, according to Copes and Allen. In a high profile 2008 incident, over 50 illnesses and 23 deaths were attributed to listeriosis contamination in luncheon meats produced at a Maple Leaf Foods plant outside Toronto.

In 2009, the company paid out an amount variously reported between $25 and $27 million dollars to settle a class action suit brought by outbreak victims. However, as of Jan. 18, 2012, final approval for the settlement was still pending in Quebec and Saskatchewan courts, and none of the victims or survivors had yet received their money.

The first signs of trouble at Maple Leaf's Bartor Road plant in York, Ontario showed up in Feb. 2008, when traces of listeria contamination were identified in processed meats on the plant's production lines 8 and 9. (This according to the report of the independent investigator, Sheila Weatherill, who was tasked with looking into the outbreak by the federal government.)

The first listeriosis death later linked to Maple Leaf products was identified in mid-June of that year, and it wasn't until July 18 that Maple Leaf Foods was identified as the possible source, said the report. It took until Aug. 7 for the CFIA to initiate a food safety investigation. On Aug. 13, Maple Leaf advised distributors to hold back on some products, and on Aug. 16 the CFIA identified Maple Leaf Foods Sure Slice products as a source of listeriosis. Almost 80 per cent of those who were infected with listeriosis from Maple Leaf products were residents of long term care homes or hospitals, and had been served meats from large packages produced for such institutions.

In the wake of the listeria deaths and illnesses associated with the Maple Leaf outbreak of 2008, and following up on recommendations from the Weatherill report, the federal government made substantial investments in new staff and services at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. As Minister Ritz's staff pointed out to The Tyee, his government spent $75 million over three years to respond to all 57 recommendations of the Weatherill report. Of this total, the agency received more than $46 million to hire and train an additional 70 food safety inspectors. Over five years, agency received more than $223 million "to enhance inspection of high risk sectors, track imports and boost recall capacity."

But in 2010, as the new money was appearing on CFIA books, a union study suggested that even with the additional funding, there were still serious problems with the federal food inspection system.

Citing interviews with food inspectors across the country, the study found that: "inspectors remain under-trained, lack modern communications equipment, and continue to struggle with an inspection system (CVS) that lacks enforcement teeth, is unrealistic in its design and is applied in a patchwork across the country."

The projected cuts in CFIA's budget are expected to eliminate over 200 staff positions.

In Aug. 2011, another change in Canadian meat inspection systems was announced. Starting in 2014, CFIA inspectors contracted in the past by the provinces of B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan to inspect meat plants operating under provincial jurisdiction because they don't ship meat outside of their provinces of origin will no longer be available to continue work. The provinces will have to create new inspection regimes and hire new staff to implement them, changes that a B.C. Ministry of Health media spokesperson told The Tyee would be "more expensive" for the province than the current arrangement.

The change may create safety costs as well as more burdens for the B.C. budget, according to the Agriculture Union's Kingston.

"To save a few bucks, the federal government is creating a two-tiered meat safety system in which some Canadians enjoy higher standards while others suffer higher risk," he said in August.  [Tyee]

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