June 21, 2024

Canadian Government Slashing Food Safety Funding

With all of the news about the Food Safety Modernization Act, not much attention has been paid to our neighbors to the north. But last year, the Harper administration in Canada quietly announced they were slashing spending on food safety by $21.5 million dollars and cutting the number of full-time staff at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) by 207.

Part of the planned cuts include complete elimination of funding to combat Listeria contamination in meat processing plants. This comes three years after a 2008 outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in deli meats produced at the Maple Leaf Foods Bartor Road plant in Toronto that sickened 57 people, killed 23, and prompted an increase in agency funding.

The class-action lawsuits filed in Canada over that outbreak were settled for $27 million, more than the CFIA cuts.

As a matter of fact, an editorial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2008 complained about the cuts Mr. Harper was planning to make in the CFIA, and stated that:

Last November (2007) the Canadian government instituted a strategic review of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Among its outcomes was to transfer inspection duties for ready-to-eat meats from the government inspectors to the meat industry. Cabinet decided to “shift from full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role, [thereby] allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks.”

In practice, the new policy meant that CFIA inspectors would rarely enter meat plants to test for bacteria and testing was left mostly to companies. Self-inspection came largely to substitute for, and not just to supplement, government inspection. Self-inspection mechanisms have worked effectively in other countries, but in Canada something went very wrong. One troubling sign is that even now, months after the policy change, the CFIA’s required sampling procedure remains under development…”

In 2008, the Weatherill Report studied the Maple Leaf Food outbreak and found that there were many problems with the Canadian federal meat inspection system, including gaps in the rules about inspection and lack of oversight.

In all, the report issued 57 recommendations that were needed to repair systemic failures in Canada’s food safety system, which included:

  • Hire 166 new food safety staff, including 70 who will focus on ready-to-eat facilities such as the Maple Leaf Foods plant responsible for the outbreak
  • Improve Listeriadetection methods
  • Improve tracking of outbreaks with a national surveillance system
  • Ensure that risk assessment teams are available 24/7 in case of an outbreak
  • Meat plants must report all public safety threats, not just positive bacteria test results, to the government
  • Food inspection reports should be published.

The report stated that some of the most serious lapses in food safety were that Maple Leaf employees did not tell CFIA inspectors that Listeria monocytogenes was repeatedly found in the plant, and that the CFIA didn’t have enough inspectors assigned to that plant. And that the risk assessment team was not available during the outbreak because of “summer vacations”.

The Weatherill report ended with these words:

“Recommendations are only words on paper until they are acted on… As foodborne illnesses are now the largest class of emerging infectious diseases in the country, and listeriosis is a serious disease with deadly consequences for vulnerable groups, governments cannot afford to ignore these findings.

That is why the Investigation recommends that, in setting its agenda for the fall of 2009, the Government of Canada should be mindful that food safety requires increased attention. Although Canada is viewed as a leader in food safety practices and systems, the Government should clearly and emphatically commit to the safety of food as one of its top priorities.

After the 2008 outbreak, the United States required more inspections for products exported from Canadian companies. And the Canadian government increased funding to the CFIA and beefed up the food safety inspection program. The proposed cuts will make it impossible to follow the Weatherill recommendations.

The Agriculture Union PSAC issued a statement today that said, in part, “At best, this decision sends the wrong message that everything is fine in Canada’s food safety system. At worst, these cuts could unravel important improvements to Canada’s food safety oversight made over the past few years and potentially threaten access to U.S. markets for Canadian producers.”

The union is starting a campaign to combat these cuts called Food Safety First, hoping to send Prime Minister Harper a message.

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