Public Values

Tainted food sparks a safety campaign

Veterinarians, inspectors, public service union want to make restoration of safety inspections an election issue.

Food Safety Firstby Food Safety First

TORONTO, September 12, 2008 — Federal candidates across the country are being asked to make a Commitment to Food Safety as part of a national campaign launched in Toronto this morning.

"The outbreaks of listeriosis due to tainted food products have shaken the country's confidence in our food protection system. The system is broken and needs fixing," says Patricia Ducharme, Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The campaign features a website — www.foodsafetyfirst.ca — which allows visitors to send a message to ask local candidates to take make a Commitment to Food Safety, a four-point action plan to fix the system. Radio, print and online ads will be used during the federal election to spread the word about the campaign, as will events across the country.

"Our unions are launching this campaign now, because of the urgent need for action and political commitment on the issue of food safety before more Canadians lives are put at risk." says Michèle Demers, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

The government of Stephen Harper has steadily cut funding for food safety programs and shifted responsibility for safety assurance to the food companies themselves.

According to current Treasury Board of Canada forecasts, funding for food safety programs will have declined by almost 30 percent from $359 million in 2006/07 to $254 million in 2010/11 under Mr. Harper's watch. Meanwhile, the government plans to expand industry self-policing of safety. A secret government document brought to light by a CFIA employee who was subsequently fired reveals plans to:

— "shift from full-time Canadian Food Inspection Agency meat inspection presence to an oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks," and;

— "eliminate" federal delivery of provincial meat inspection programs" in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. "There are too few inspectors who spend too much time reviewing company-generated reports in a system that relies too much on the food industry to police itself when it comes to safety," says Agriculture Union President Bob Kingston, a food inspection supervisor on leave from the CFIA.

The campaign aims to drum up support among candidates and the federal parties for the following policies to improve food safety in Canada:

Hire 1000 additional inspectors and veterinarians to improve compliance

There are almost 800 federally regulated meat processing facilities scattered across Canada, many processing thousands of animals everyday. There are also thousands of cheese, produce and other food production facilities, as well as delis and other retail outlets, all of which are potential sources for deadly food-borne bacteria. This territory is far too vast for the 1100 fully qualified process food inspectors and 230 meat hygiene veterinarians currently on staff. While the problem of food-borne illness is complex, one dimension of the problem is clear: our food inspectors are too few and spread too thinly. For example, the inspector responsible for the Maple Leaf plant which was the source of tainted meat in the latest food-borne bacterial outbreak also is responsible for six other facilities. In order to ensure companies follow food safety regulations we simply need more inspectors.

Place an immediate moratorium on industry self-policing policies

Under changes introduced on March 31st this year, including at Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto, meat inspectors are now directly supervising from the plant floor only 25 percent of the time. The rest of the time, federal meat inspectors review company generated reports. This reality falls far short of the target for inspectors to spend half their time inspecting hands-on under the new "Compliance Verification System". Beyond meat processing, industry self-policing has been extended to poultry; monitoring the health of birds was transferred from inspectors to the private sector in the fall of 2007.

Plans the Conservative government has approved but not entirely implemented will give industry more self-policing powers when it comes to safety. The Compliance Verification System, the Poultry Rejection Program and future self-policing plans should be put on hold.

Remove obstacles preventing CFIA inspectors & vets from taking immediate action

CFIA inspectors are discouraged from taking immediate action when serious health problems arise. Instead, they are strongly encouraged to give the offending company a "Corrective Action Request" which states the nature of the problem and gives the company up to 60 days to address it. The theory of immediate action of the part of inspectors becomes more remote because under the "Compliance Verification System" inspectors spend 75 percent of their time at the plant reviewing company-generated reports, instead of inspecting facilities. This approach is part and parcel of the move toward industry self-policing when it comes to safety.

Restore the system of public audit reports which were cancelled under pressure from the meat industry

For 20 years, government inspectors reported and ranked the meat processing facilities they inspected. Under pressure from an industry lobby group called the Canadian Meat Council which complained about the bad press these reports created when obtained by reporters, the federal government cancelled the practice soon after Stephen Harper took office. Canadians need to know which companies are meeting safety standards and which companies are not and the public audit system should be restored.

The organization Food Safety First is sponsored by Canada's food inspectors and veterinarians.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Take action. Ask the candidates in your riding to make a commitment to food safety.

Links and sources
  Tainted food sparks national safety campaign, Food Safety First, September 12, 2008

Posted: September 16, 2008

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